How does this economic crisis, and crises more generally, relate to emancipatory change? There is a small contention concerning whether crisis can lead to a ‘lack of faith’ in capitalism, up to the point of breeding antipathy and discontent great enough to motivate opposition to it. The argument is that, following Marx, crisis is a structural function of capitalism, and in no way undermines it, rather constituting a crucial moment of its reproduction. Moreover, because crisis plunges the masses into despair and fear, they are less likely to question established values than to seek protection and stability from those in power. Following from this, we would be more likely to see oppositional sentiments grow in times of abundance and growth than times of crisis. Mark at k-punk summarizes this contention nicely here.
I think both positions are right, but for the wrong reasons. Periods of affluence certainly do breed oppositional sentiments – with the catch being that these sentiments are ultimately nothing more than that, impotent gestures of rejection without a concrete program. Even where we do see real, positive action taken on their behalf, and I refer here to the countless activist groups and movements that have been booming since, well, at least the mid-90′s or so, culminating in events like Seattle or the anti-war protests that lead up to the invasion of Iraq, this action does not lead to a significant disruption of the operations of capital or the state. No governments fell (except, of course, Iraq), no significant restrictions or regulations were placed on capital, no new liberated territories were formed. What you get is Bush looking at the protesters and saying ‘Someday, because of our invasion, the Iraqi people will be able to protest like that also!’
And as for the other position, periods of crisis do announce a significant threat to capital, but this threat is not the external one of a revolution or rejection of capitalism. The threat is the one capital itself poses to its own economic structure. This is not to say that the crisis itself threatens capitalism, but that it reveals the manner in which capital threatens itself. We can ask a very simple, empirical question: if the state did not intervene in this crisis, what would have happened? The total implosion of financial capital, and with it, a shockwave undermining capital invested in production and service as well. So if we did demand a pure capitalism, one in which the market was allowed to work out these problems itself, it would amount to a near-total devastation of existing capital, with defaults on debt leading to a massive implosion of existing wealth. But we cannot imagine a capitalism that did not require a minimal level of state intervention in the economy – property law, corporate law, bankruptcy law, state-backed currency… If we did demand a market with pure conditions, lacking any interference from the state, capital would collapse on itself (and so would the state, lacking some alternative economic program).
In these situations, when we are posed the alternative of ‘le pere or le pire’, the father or worse, the state or an uncontainable meltdown, we should chose the latter. The conditions in which capital can exist run counter to ‘pure’ capitalism, and hence the existence of capital is the ultimate limit to capitalism, as the famous formula goes. What the real ‘anti-capitalist’ should do is not demand some alternative socialist system, or create a space outside of capital, or otherwise reject capitalism outright: she should demand pure capitalism to be implemented directly, as this would deprive it of the existence of capital, and hence lead it to undermine itself, to pull the carpet from under its own feet, in a strange inversion of Baron Munchausen.
I want to distinguish this position from that of the Chinese government’s version of Marxism, which claims that the complete development of the capitalist mode of production must precede any utopian dreams of post-capitalist reality. This position takes Menshevik gradualism to an absurd extreme, claiming that in order to be a Marxist, we must advocate for capitalism’s development. First of all, Chinese capitalism relies on an extreme level of state intervention, whereas I am claiming we should argue for total deregulation, a total lack of intervention, that we should deprive capital of every state support. Moreover, whereas the Chinese government says we need to gradually develop the capitalist mode of production, I am making the ‘Leninist’ demand that we must have pure capitalism now, whether the conditions are ripe or not. We must implement pure, ‘abstract’ capitalism regardless of the ‘stage of development’ at which we are.
Finally, I want to again discuss what a ‘Bartleby politics’ might look like, as regards this case of crisis. ‘Doing nothing’ here cannot mean simply not responding to the crisis, acting as if nothing was happening. Rather, for the state to do nothing, it must abandon every form of support and regulation, it must refuse to intervene to any extent, and this includes ceasing to provide any structural support to the capitalist economy: property law, bankruptcy protection, subsidies and tax-breaks, everything must go. Now, this is clearly a dream, there are basically no conditions under which the State would adopt such a program, not only because of the influence of capital on policy, but moreover because this would like lead to a catastrophe for the population in the form of unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and so on. But we can draw an insight from this self-destructive character of capitalism, and the preventative role played by the state. Ultimately, Marx was not naive to claim that the force capable of overcoming capitalism would develop directly out of capitalism: this force is capitalism itself, which seems to strive for the liquidation of its own support, that is, accumulated capital.
Okay, but this is a dream. What would Bartleby politics look like for us, here on the ground level of the economy? Nicole at Rough Theory weighs in on the debate concerning crisis and change, and her response is quite instructive for our problem. She reminds us that the crisis and contradictions generated by capitalism are, for Marx, not necessarily elements of its collapse or overcoming, but rather, only part of the reproduction of capital. The question of emancipatory change, which for her is bound to the standpoint of critique, the genesis of a position capable of really breaking with the logic of capital, cannot be posed abstractly; it is not a question of ‘is this the right time?’ or ‘what kind of conditions does it require?’. It is a practical question of bringing about such positions through the reconfiguration of the ‘materials’ of social being – the ‘social but non-intersubjective element’ that she has previously discussed, which I would not hesitate to identify with the Symbolic order itself, or rather, the way subjects are bound up in it through organizations of jouissance. By intervening directly in the organization of collective praxis, which is to say, arrangements of enunciation and production, we can engender such a critical standpoint.
Or maybe I can put this another way. It is not that we must figure out some more radical form of organization, so as to bring about a break with capitalism. The question is how to organize collectively in line with a break that is already structurally presupposed in capitalism (the proletariat position), but that is at the same time rejected from assumption or possession, that is dis-inherited or foreclosed. It is not a question of bringing about a critical standpoint, but of enacting the necessary exclusion of its possibility, through the circulation of praxicals (indices of collective praxes, constellations of discursive and productive arrangements) that do not point toward capital as a pure possession of productivity, as the fullness of the yield of production. This latter notion is probably quite enigmatic at the moment, but it is what I am attempting to develop in my thesis (which is complete and will be posted here soon), and in my preliminary formulations of a practical model of schizoanalysis, which is, for me, a collective reorganization of the social/non-intersubjective materials of symbolic structures and relations of production. I will begin laying out a basic methodological elaboration of this model in following posts.
A top-down version of Bartleby politics, in which the state would abandon capital to capitalism, is clearly not only dramatically unlikely, but also probably not preferable for most workers. Even if such a politics did lead to a massive investment in the reorganization of economic life, it is expecting too much of the state. We will likely end up with some version of neo-Keynesianism, aimed at developing a set of regulations adequate to the contemporary excesses of financial capital. Yet as I said, we can learn something from such a thought experiment. What kind of investment would be required of the state to reorganize economic life in such a manner that avoided the reemergence or perseverance of capital? It would have to take the form of a radically different organization of production, productive relations and forces, that, in the absence of accumulated capital, would have to rely on the collective organization of workers themselves. It is this kind ‘radical reorganization of production’, such that the surplus is reinvested in and by a new social bond amongst (non-)workers, that would be necessary.
In a state-centered version of this story, we could quite easily imagine state funds, on the level of the recent bailout plan, being directed toward agricultural-, production-, and service-sector corporations that would inevitably crumble under the weight of a failed financial sector. This could either aim to rebuild and stabilize failing corporations, which would likely be next to impossible, or could invest in the appropriation of the business by employees now abandoned by investment and credit, with an eye toward a new kind of collective organization. Once such collective appropriations of businesses became profitable, they could buyout the state investment and begin from there. Although this version is only a dream, we can nonetheless imagine such a collective model emerging from the bottom up (and indeed, there are a great number of collective business models, in theory and practice, throughout the economy). Richard Wolff, with whom I had the pleasure of taking a course last year, presents a variation on such a model of reorganization on the basis of collective ownership by workers.
[I'm focusing here on the last ten minutes or so of Wolff's lecture.] Now I take issue with Wolff’s proposal on many accounts, but here I want to focus on his claim that collectivization of enterprises amounts to their ‘democratization’, and that economic democracy must serve as the real substrate of any legitimate political democracy. The simplest way to explain this problem is that democracy, as a social bond, essentially maintains the very elements that make workers susceptible to exploitation. Here is a provisional list of such elements:
1) The gap between articulated positions and actualized policies, which always maintains the primacy of a majority or consensus over deviations, oppressed or dissenting positions. This gap is moreover a symptom of the necessary distance between all actually articulated positions, actual or potential, and the necessarily rejected or foreclosed position that is ‘undemocratic’ and hence incompatible, namely, the position of those who do not exist (yet, or anymore, or even those who do actually exist, but that are not accounted for, that do not ‘belong’ to the set).
2) The basic formal function of democracy is to reduce all members to abstract equivalents, ‘votes’. This is true of everything from parliamentary democracy to ‘authentic’ direct democracy – we must be seen as equal in the eyes of the group (demos). Now besides the obvious technical problems with every form of voting, and the question of merit or weight of particular votes, both of which can to some degree be addressed, this nonetheless misses the crucial dimension of subjectivity, what I’ve been calling the ancestral dimension: the subject is not (only) a unified element that can be counted and equivocated in a set, but is moreover the symptomal expression of that which can not, and must not, be counted, registered, or legitimated in a set or group, in other words, that which had to not be so that the group could constitute itself.
3) Democracy, even in its most radical form (Laclau and Mouffe), relies upon the hegemonic articulation of a Master-signifier that stands for the inadequacy or incompletion of the existing bond, whether this consists in a fantasmatic assumption of some lost or possible fullness or completeness of the socius, or post-fantasmatic cyncism. It cannot break with the Master-signifier, with the masculine logic of exception, and it cannot reach the level of drive, in which the signifier that acts as social bond would directly enact the loss of such a completion, indeed, in which the social bond would directly be the loss of such a completion.
I could go on, I could clarify these points in less obscure terms, go into greater specificity, et cetera, but this account should be sufficient at the moment. What I am proposing is that the possibility of a new collective praxis, a new organization of productive and enuniciative relations, cannot rely on the existing symbolic configurations, the existing economy of asubjective-social materials. It must generate a new social bond through a reorgnization of this economy, or rather, of the relation between collective jouissance and its symbolic support/impediment.
This is more than a matter of figuring out a new way of socializing – it is a matter of rescuing from obscurity that necessarily missed potential of a different bond with others, and making this foreclosure itself the realization of the foreclosed. I understand this to be the objective of schizoanalysis. So such a practice should endeavor to develop a new collective organization of praxis, discursive and material production, that enacts this break that is simultaneously a bond, a pact or promise. Schizoanalysis is a method and science of reorganizing society, abandoned by capital (but aren’t the workers always already abandoned by capital?), on the basis of a radical collective praxis, a collectivized production of existence.
So Bartleby politics, in ‘doing nothing’, forcing into the symbolic texture the intolerable void of the situation, cannot rely on the social bond of democracy. It must make this void, this nothingness, into the social bond itself, and this is precisely what schizoanalysis does, as I conceive it. It is not a matter of inaction, but of acting in a manner that capital cannot register, a manner that enacts a dimension foreclosed to capital from the outset. Any collective organization that seeks to overcome capital, in the wake of this startling crisis, must begin by thinking carefully about the nature of its social bond. To ‘do nothing’ for capital, we must become nothing to capital.