Ben Noys on the agency problem in Marxism. To briefly recapitulate, there is a debate as to the relation between labor and the standpoint of critique: is labor-power a force external to capital rooted in ‘human nature’ and on the basis of which we can exit capital domination? Or does capital allow no outside, encompassing and determining even the agency of living labor?
As Ben notes, the problem comes down to the difference between formal subsumption, in which capital appropriates already-existing social and productive forms, extracting surplus from them, and real subsumption, in which capital actively engineers these social forms. Marx famously links the latter process to that of the rise of automated machinery and large-scale industry. He claims there is a fundamental difference between the tool as mobilized by labor as motive force, ultimately dependent on human beings as the unifying and organizing core of the production process, and the machine as locus of a motive force or ‘prime mover’ no longer dependent on man.
The important dynamic here is one in which the relation of organization and motivation, ordering and ‘moving’ or ‘fueling’, becomes inverted: formerly, it was on the basis of man’s self-determining agency that he decides to produce something, motivating the production process (and investing that process with his locomotive power), and then secondarily brings together a specific organization of means to mediate the motive force, yielding force embodied in a product (dead labor). Yet with automation, the organization of means gains an autonomous and primary existence – no longer a means to the end posited by man qua motive force, the reproduction and expansion of the means becomes the only end, to which autonomously self-determining labor becomes an empty ‘source of value’, no longer creative but reduced to a sort of raw material or fuel akin to coal or oil.
If abstract labor-power is reduced in this way, qualified concrete labor becomes ‘human capital’, identical to the mechanical capacities of a given body (dexterity, strength, knowledge or know-how, charisma, skill…). Man is split, on the one hand, into a fuel source (e.g. the reduction of man to a battery in The Matrix), and a machinic component to be integrated into a larger productive system (a cog). Labor-power no longer has anything spontaneous, self-determining or creative about it; it amounts to a battery-powered machine, and the ownership of that machine (self-ownership) on the basis of which one ‘rents out’ its use to a larger corporate body.
So again, the question is whether this latter picture leaves any room for resistance. How can we escape from capital if we are ourselves simply micro-capitals, if labor-power is thoroughly determined within the capitalist system? One would tend to think that, rather than recoiling into a ‘pure, non-alienated presence of labor-power to itself’ outside of its encastment by capital, the critical/revolutionary program would involve the abolition of labor itself on the basis of something else entirely. Yet this raises the crippling problem of agency: if labor-power is ultimately synonymous with self-determination and self-ownership, then wouldn’t the abolition of the autonomous individual amount to the loss of agency altogether? Who is the agent, if it is not the self-owning body, the private proprietor of oneself qua micro-capital? Is it necessary to retain the capital-based illusion of agency in order to live at all?
The obvious counter-argument here is that agency itself historically precedes capitalism, and even if it passes from formal to real subsumption, there is nonetheless strong evidence that non-capitalist subjectivity can exist; the question is how to generate it. Yet the efficacy of the capitalist illusion depends upon the fantasmatic presumption that all of history, until now, was a progression toward capitalism as final form of social organization, end of (hi)story. Even if capital only contingently came into being, we nonetheless act as if it was a necessity. This is more than a mere deception or illusion: it is an ‘objectively valid fiction’, or real abstraction. This does not mean it is any less necessary, but that its necessity is an illusion generated in and supported by practice: it is in fact a practical necessity, and will be so until a new practical form is developed that does not in fact require it. Until we in fact create a form of agency unassimilable by capital, or a mode of practice irreconcilable with that of capital, the latter will de facto be the end of history. History will be over, finding its (retroactively) necessary end in capital, unless we can invalidate that necessity in practice.
It’s not good enough to ground resistance to capital in pre- or para-capitalistic practices, as these have proven to be perfectly amenable to their capitalist culmination. There is, in short, no necessary ground of resistance, for any such ground could as easily be incorporated by capital as by resistance to it; therefore, there is no reason to claim labor-power is absolutely outside of capital. If capital ‘has no outside’, it is because it can encompass anything. Yet far from amounting to a fatalist resignation to the unsurpassable necessity of capital, this only means that capital’s ascendancy carries with it the realization of the absolute contingency of the ‘alliances’ or dominations by which capital has become all-encompassing. Capital may pose itself as the necessary culmination of all social forms, but this necessity is only effective so long as we act as if it is the case. Thinking or believing it is not the case is not enough, as Zizek emphasizes, because belief is only one practice amongst others, whereas a genuine practical shift must cut across the entire terrain of praxes, region by region. There is no one locale that is determining of all others – certainly not mere belief. On the contrary, belief must change, but so must law, institutional forms, everyday rituals and routines, and so on.
Resistance is to capital is no more necessary than capital itself – it is only as necessary as it is actual. If capital does in fact sow the seeds of its own destruction, it is because, in relativizing all other modes of practice to itself as absolute culmination, it thereby hints at a mode of practice that avows itself as contingent, that operates on the basis of its being without reason. In other words, in revealing all past claims to necessity as themselves contingent, capital threatens to reveal its own claim to necessity as contingent as well. Resistance need not simply replace the capitalist illusion with another (nor should it, given the proven susceptibility of these illusions of necessity to capitalist appropriation), but may surpass praxis grounded in illusory necessity altogether…
It is to Nicole Pepperell’s credit to have so clearly explicated the artificial and historically contingent nature of practical necessity or ‘real abstraction’. If there is a ‘realism’ associated with the latter, it is one in which the subject-independent reality – the reality of a mode of practice – is nonetheless contigent upon the involvement of subjects themselves. This is not to say that reality is dependent upon a privileged relation to subjectivity: subjectivity is but one byproduct of practical constellations amongst others, and it is not even necessarily the most dominant. The production of subjectivity in practice is irreducible to subjectivity as a product, even as that product is seamlessly integrated into its own (re)production process.
Moreover, there is nothing any more necessary about this product than any other. In principle, we can imagine a society utterly deprived of subjectivity, in which agency is reduced to the most trivial decision not to resist extrinsically imposed order (Orwellian dystopia), or worse, in which agency actively polices itself, determining-itself only so long as it does not rub society the wrong way… In this vein, it is utterly contingent that capital retains living labor as a component of the production process. As technology progresses, it becomes possible to replace larger and larger swaths of human capital with mechanical capital, which is at once more reliable and less maintenance-intensive, if not always as pliable. If capital nonetheless balks on this possibility, it is because it is far easier to keep populations under control if they are employed, and, even though spending is increasingly becoming debt-based, this nonetheless requires some minimal income level to sustain debt-repayment. Continuing to employ living labor, even as its necessity for production declines, nonetheless obtains a new role in the reproduction of the consumption base of the market (demand) on the one hand, and the reproduction of purchasing power on the other.
This reduction of man to an especially unreliable and vulnerable sort of flesh machine is further bolstered by neuroscientific research, which finishes the job of (de)naturalization begun by capital. If the latter effectively dispels the fantasmatic necessity or naturalness of everything but the self-expanding movement of capital itself, the former replaces this vanquished fantasy with the cold indifferent image of man as a peculiarly self-undermining sort of information processing system, no different from animal, computer, or any other physical system. The complete absorption of man into ‘external nature’, his total naturalization, coincides with the loss of his own ‘second’ nature, his total denaturalization. Yet this also coincides with the utter denaturalization of external nature itself: there is nothing necessary about the way nature is, nature itself signifies nothing but an utterly contingent conglomeration of side effects and collateral damage, deviations of deviations. As a consequence, man and nature together are revealed as so thoroughly unnecessary that capital in principle can do with them as it pleases: control, alter, or even abandon them.
The loss of living labor as the necessary essence of man, in-itself resistant and external to its encastment by capital, is strictly parallel to the neuroscientific leveling of super-natural consciousness. While the so-called defenders of consciousness insist on its irreducibility to its physical-neural substrate, the opposing ‘reducers of consciousness’ continue to make inroads in claiming that apparent irreducibility is itself an illusion generated by that substrate. Rather than attempting to explain away first-person consciousness, the far more threatening implication is that the latter is fully real, but nonetheless artificial and contingent. Far from denying first-person consciousness, claiming it simply is not, the more dangerous implication from the defensive prerogative is that it is, and that it can be undone and replaced.
Eliminativism is not simply reductionism, in which one region of reality is dissolved in the identity of another, and their alleged difference is denounced as unreal illusion. Rather, eliminativism announces the thorough-going reality of the illusion, its grounding in a material process. This does not make the illusion unreal, but artificial – that is, real and unnecessary. Eliminativism takes this artificiality as characteristic not only of folk psychological representations of the real, but, as this representation is itself real, or in the real, also of the real process that produces its own mis-representation. While Churchland approaches this conclusion, only to back away in affirming the ‘super-empirical virtue’ of championing a bad-faith necessity of ‘clear, scientific’ representation, Ray Brassier more boldly accepts the utter ruination of the normative security ensured by this, or any other, artificial insistence upon necessity.
Folk psychological insistence upon the exteriority of consciousness to materiality is itself reducible to a certain distribution of neural phase-space which was artificially instituted and can be mutated or even replaced altogether. Churchland advocates the dismantling of the neuro-computational distributions that produce folk psychological effects, in favor of one that admits the neurological nature of its own production. Yet while Churchland’s prescription may be preferable when it comes to scientific research, it is nonetheless practically inadequate, as Van der Burg and Eardley point out. They claim that the practical theories we employ in our day-to-day dealings in the world are not evaluated by the same criteria as scientific theories, despite Churchland’s denial of such disparate theoretical standards. Rather, they maintain that, as preferable as a neuro-computational paradigm may be for scientific thought, it does not yield a practicable model for ‘everyday life’, whereas folk psychology does. They therefore insist that elimination of folk psychology is not only not preferrable, but may even be impossible, short of dramatic upheavals visible only on evolutionary time-scales.
Contrary to this pragmatic conservativism, we should insist on the potentially corrosive program of exposing folk psychological real abstractions to their normative insolvency, their inability to ground their own prescription without the fantasmatic assumption of necessity. This is perhaps what Catherine Malabou (in her wonderful, short book What Should We Do With Our Brain?) is pointing towards with her promotion of a consciousness of the brain, an auto-de-naturalizing consciousness, or a folk psychology that incorporates its own self-destruction or apoptosis. Rather than keeping the necessity of consciousness on life support, or simply putting it out of its misery, perhaps we should open ourselves to the ‘insurgent creativity’ of abstract decay processes, as Reza Negarestani so brilliantly suggests.
Such an ethos of mutation away from the dominant mode of praxis (be this neural-computational or politcal-economic) becomes possible once the fantasmatic security of the normative suture, binding a prescribed state of affairs to an existing one on the basis of some imputed necessity presupposed by the latter, loses its valence and begins to come undone, as it does with both neuroscientific leveling of folk psychology, and with capitalism’s leveling of tradition. This ethos does not prescribe itself, or attempt to assert the necessity of its own implementation, but only lives in accord with the radical contingency – the reasonless and purposeless nature of nature – that has finally pervaded every corner of the world. This is not one ideology amongst others, nor a finally attained ‘beyond’ of ideology, but rather an illegitimate use of ideology, its exposure to its own contingency and its consequent destabilization, mutation, and decay without destruction. The problem is that, as we are already selves, already human capitals, etc, not how to rid ourselves of these illusions, but how to mutate ourselves away from them. How do we experiment on ourselves, confining ourselves to an experimentation without return to the controlled point of departure?
In this light, Nicole Pepperell’s notion of standpoint of critique becomes indispensable: in accepting the contingency of existing objectively or practically valid ‘illusions’, or normative sutures, we can ask in what manner we might disassemble and recompose new practical structures out of the existing material. This is not simply a matter of retaining illusions, or disingenuously reinstating normative security, but rather of experimenting with tentative practical structures whose existence is necessary (unless we are to cease existing altogether, which is of course always an option), but whose structure is thoroughly contingent. The only imperative is to acknowledge the contingency of existing formations, and to enact that contingency by experimenting with them, by refusing to take non-preferable forms for granted.
Practical formations should hence be regarded as social technologies, following Foucault and Marx, amongst others. Here we can see the tremendous value of Levi Bryant’s philosophy as an ontological engineering, as well as Evan Calder Williams’ concept of salvagepunk as a kind of bricolage of the ruins of the world yielded by de-naturalization as decay process. My problem with the latter is that not everything is ruined yet, there is still plenty of fully or partially functioning social technology that needs to be appropriated by ruin (or ex-appropriated, owned over to no one). There are still too many uninfected selves, too many undead laborers mistaking themselves for living. We need to suspend operative technologies in order to use them for new scrap-works. If we simply make use existing scrap, we are ultimately susceptible to ‘cleaning up’ after capital, rather than to actively opposing it – finding a new market in the landfill…
Mikhail’s recent claims that obsession with productivity and projects is a symptom of the ‘new’ spirit of capitalism qua time allocation and investment in projects should be challenged on these grounds. The problem ultimately comes down to normative security: idleness figures as suspension of purposes, whereas productivity is false devotion to purpose, thereby nullifying the intolerable core of inoperation (Zizek also makes this point). Yet this is a false dichotomy – both hysterical productivity and inoperative detachment are mobilized by capital, both project-obsession and leisure are equally profitable. Even leisure becomes a product of engineering oneself, a ‘practice of pleasure’, etc. Leisure is a technology we work on and through, and with purpose. The question is how to endow engineering practices with purposelessness or suspension of meaning, how to obsessively produce purposelessly, or to ex-appropriate endlessly.
Capital is ultimately the expansion of control – without a concrete purpose other than self expansion. The question is how to suspend control itself, and to submit to the determination in-the-last-instance by the real (or by the absolute contingency and artificiality) of all endeavors. Capital may render everything artificial, but only in order to enforce a feigned necessity, compensating for denaturalization and consequent normative insecurity with artificial naturalizations or reterritorializations that endow it with a monopoly on legitimation. Resistance can only come in the form of an experimental groping that undermines all attempted institutions of necessity, legitimacy, or propriety – in short, normative security.
Just because project-oriented production is an operative social technology does not mean it can’t be appropriated, or shouldn’t be. Project-orientation could just as easily be mobilized against capital as for it, especially if these projects involve ex-appropriation and experimental/purposeless engineering. (This is, according to Pepperell, Marx’s great insight, motivating the entire scope of Capital.) So, to return to Ben’s post, this is how I deal with “the problem of capital qua axiomatic and the seeming disappearance of agency as mere folk-relic of our psychology.” Capital is axiomatic only insofar as it is a practical reality, or insofar as its truth is decided in practice, as a matter of fact. As for the disappearance of agency – it would be better to aim for a decay of agency rather than its reduction, an elimination of its necessity coupled with a mutagenic exposure to the limitless deviations available in embracing artificiality.