Is Capitalism a Hyperobject?

The problem of the finite human mind attempting to grasp the Absolute is an old problem that was recognised – in Frühromantik, for example – as an antinomy, being on the one hand a logical impossibility and on the other, an ethical necessity (or at least, imperative). Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘romantic’ response to this deadlock was philosophical irony, a sensibility I will write about on some other occasion.

Today something of the structure of this problem persists, in a rather more materialist register, in the attempt to cognitively map the known. I was about to write ‘the known universe’ but this suggests a determinate unity that, in the fallacious sense, begs the question of whether such a map is possible in its singularity. We cannot solve a problem by merely approaching it as a thing already solved. Problems – that is, theoretical tensions – are not resolved merely by regarding them as such. In this sense it might be worthwhile jettisoning the idea of a universe, in the sense of a continuous extension in which everything from the Planck length to the ’size of the known universe’ is included, especially if all things within this extension are considered to be in some sense explanatory (both of each other and of the whole) in some causal way. The existence of vacuum energy or superclusters can no more ‘explain’ biscuits or tennis than a mute gingernut or tennis ball can. Even rejecting a purported ‘theory of everything’ one has still has to face the fact that we have not mapped out the human world – the tiniest fragment of the smallest crumb it seems – and what we know about it. Life and living systems are complex; human life is no exception. The enormity of the ecosystem, or even just the human impact upon it, seems beyond our ability to represent it. At an even more immediate level, we have no cognitive map of capitalist economy, which we are intimately embedded in. Compared to this, the intricacies of the human genome are a breeze to decipher. Indeed it will probably turn out to be much easier and simpler to map the empirical data of all scientifically observable domains than it will to map out any single sphere of human relations involving a non-positivist or symbolic register. Consequently, such unmapped complex vastitudes have earned the name of hyperobjects. With hyperobjects of the type ‘global capitalism’, ‘the anthropocene’, ‘the economy’ or even just ‘neoliberalism’ we are returned to antinomy-like situations similar to those that the romantics faced: while direct or immediate comprehension of a hyperobject is beyond our capability it is at the same time demanded of us to recognise its circumscribing reality, and it thus becomes a matter of ethical duty to somehow locate ourselves within it and in relationship to it. The production of theory becomes morally imperative if we are not to acquiesce to the vicissitudes of an animalistic nihilism in which one class of people get to play zookeeper.

The Modal Collapse of Neoliberalism: when anything less than an optimal return is somehow insufficient

By now we are all familiar, or should be, with neoliberalism. We know it is essentially a form of capitalism in which certain parts of the state are privatised, either overtly or in effect; in which the role of social development is given over to business leaders and private investment, and key state services are increasingly both managed, and delivered through the private sector, whose gladiators are supposed to be constantly in combat for the prize of a contract. We also have become familiar with the often euphemistic business language which describes certain features of the neoliberal apparatus, particularly the ideological image of its public-facing front-end: 'just-in-time' stocking, 'service-oriented' architecture, 'minimal infrastructure'. Given such imagery, one would imagine a highly efficient, waste-minimising system 'revolutionising' and supplanting the supposedly wasteful, costly, bureaucratic and inefficient redundancies of the Keynesian economy and its old industrial-based Fordist methodologies. Familiar too are the political incentives offered up as evidence of neoliberalism's social value: primarily public 'choice', a way of making the injection of competitivity at all levels of state business–via triage of multiple competing providers–appear as a provision rooted in concern for the individual consumer and her freedom. Wrapped up in the philosophical doctrines of preferentism and the economics of public choice theory, neoliberalism's actual motivation of centralising markets in the role of social governance cannot but appeal to a society in which the fetishisation of commodity has irrevocably obscured anything like a production process or the value of social labour.

The ideological components of neoliberalism are by now diffuse and widespread throughout our lives. My son's high school sends me emails addressing me as a 'customer' rather than as the parent or guardian of a pupil; likewise, social housing projects no longer speak to residents but to 'service users', or, once again, 'customers'. While custodianship of human social relations falls by the wayside, there is a general increase in guides, custodians and curatorships of products, with 'experts' available on every webpage to instruct the feckless masses in how to spend their wages.These trends act as 'signs of the times', illuminating a much wider context than education, housing and retail, in the generalisation of the human subject as the privileged holder of a customer number. Neoliberalism means monetisation, marketisation, and somewhere in that process no doubt, financialisation. While all true, this is a tired analysis that has been repeated often enough for theorists to now be scrabbling over novel and inventive ways to best characterise late capitalism, as if it were a competition for the most apt observational comedy routine.

My own contribution to this growing library of descriptive identification is very small to date, and has consisted mostly of quoting others who do it much better. I'm not, as a rule, very quick off the mark when it comes to identifying practices and trends, and tend to let fly with a keyboard at around the same time as Minerva's owl is returning home, breakfast safely tucked in beak. A thought has occurred to me recently however, and it concerns not so much the actually-existing state of neoliberalism (as a variety of capitalist economics) but rather more reflexively, neoliberalism's own ideological expectations of itself. I would wager that many of those caught up in neoliberalism's expectations, either in frantically trying to fulfil them, or in the pervasive transmission and reproduction of them, are by now so deeply immersed and enmeshed in their doctrine as to no longer be capable of the same sorts of judgement that were possible forty or fifty years ago.Less cryptically, lets say that there has to come about a certain collapse of logical modal categories in order for neoliberal ideology to function smoothly. In particular, neoliberalism's demand for the 'optimisation' of efficiency and the 'excellence' of resultant delivery must play havoc with the very basic ontological operator of sufficiency. In modal terms the sufficient is the just adequate, the 'barely' sufficient or satisfactory in order for a certain ontological consistency to continue or reproduce itself. My point is that if the optimal functioning of a system is demanded by neoliberalism as the normal level of its sufficiency, then the actually sufficient becomes indistinguishable from the insufficient, or the deficient. What this somewhat abstract shift and consequent indiscernibility of modal categories under neoliberalism excavates clearly is a situation under which objective evaluation through the mediation of clearly separated classical ontological categories must fail: we are left with a metric in which sufficiency is meaningless because the ideological figure of optimisation has supplanted it, rendering the rest a grey zone in which sufficiency and insufficiency are indiscernible.

In a certain sense, this was always obvious of capitalist growth-centred expansionist economics, and neoliberalism merely names the age which, to date, most visibly illuminates or demonstrates this truth. Capitalism can only survive if it can produce markets for itself, which means it must appropriate everything, even its own putative social goals (such as optimisation) as a means to surplus and self-reproduction. If that involves destroying the very intelligibility of those goals, i.e. their goal-like nature, in taking them on as basic assumptions of the system, then so be it. Logical modality is no obstacle for the juggernaut. Capitalism was never driven by the achievement of the satisfactory, by the production and the distribution of the sufficient, but by the principle of satisfaction, which is to say surplus satisfaction, the private profit of a class. I would bet that the more closely neoliberalism is analysed, the less of a new phenomenon it will appear; for all the talk of cognitive capital, precariat and new forms of exploitation, the fundamental categories of Marxist analysis seem to always re-emerge as the most adequate ways to discuss and critique it.

The Undone Button

The visibility of the ideological state apparatus does not remain constant but ebbs and flows. Its visibility is particularly heightened, argues Richard Seymour, when something challenges it.

In this case, the rise to political prominence of a socialist candidate, to the extent that the leadership of Labour is once again aligned with its founding mission, and firmly opposed to austerity, poses a threat to that hegemony over discourse in which the economic policies of George Osborne and the Conservatives can no longer be considered as unmarked. By 'unmarked' — a term from semiotics — we designate the term within a paradigm which dominates the alternatives, by appearing in the form of consensus, the norm, the 'common sense' or 'realistic' option. It forms, as it were, the 'generic' choice just as 'man' can be used as the generic noun despite its place in a paradigm in which exist other possibilities for the generic noun — possibilities which then become 'marked' by a series of differentiations from 'man'. To a large extent, the triumph of neoliberalism over the past 30-40 yrs lay in the way it neutralised (and normalised) the right wing economics of a particular school to the extent that they assumed an unmarked position. We see the legacy of this process (which correlated perfectly with the Blairite practice of political triangulation) today in the way that written articles across the media persistently premodify Jeremy Corbyn as 'left wing', but leave David Cameron unmarked. What a groundswell of support for Corbyn has achieved, however, is to question the assumption that this way of setting the political field in view (a 'way of seeing' entrenched by neoliberalism) is a true reflection of the actual state of affairs in absolute political terms. In other words, the shift in support evidenced by the election of Corbyn to Labour Leader opposes and to some extent brandishes the power to shatter the ideological illusions (and practices, ways of seeing and of speaking) of neoliberalism.

Articulated with this opposition to neoliberal hegemony is the appearance of a faultline within the assumed consensus of neoliberalism itself; we now witness the appearance of several articles issuing from voices within establishment economics demanding it be recognised that there is nothing particularly radical about Corbyn's proposed policies. In other words, hegemony can take the form of a battle over what is and what is not to be considered 'mainstream', and it is slowly becoming recognised that the relatively mild social democratic reforms that constitute Jeremy Corbyn's economic proposals are far from outlandish but form the very bedrock of the Labour Party raison d'être. While 'New Labour' gets stuck in a delicious trap of its own making, unable to do anything but fall back to its Thatcherite 'no alternative' line (against the evidence of the IMF itself), and looking increasingly irrelevent, the Conservative party no longer appear as if they can so commandingly occupy, or have exclusive rights to, the full field of economic possibilities or even the most realistic, normal position. This change, which we would not be amiss in calling the 're-politicisation of the appearance of politics', is what the old order, the neoliberal consensus, cannot tolerate, and which so provokes it. The expositive, revealing experience of suddenly seeing the reigning economic model politically situated once again is akin to it being divested of 'security', of it being 'exposed' to inspection and scrutiny, and criticism. No wonder then that such a challenge provokes a response smacking of the return of repressed : panicky, hot-tempered, moralising, somewhat delusional, and very much ridiculous.

Another symptomal artefact of the response to challenged neoliberal hegemony must surely be the increased obsession with the minutiae of ritual, the performance of practices of respect, from dress code to singing of anthems. Predictably, such a pathological response attracted notice:

Millions have their #TaxCredits slashed. Media thinks Corbyn not singing the national anthem is more important. pic.twitter.com/YcZkfTq06S

— Welfare Weekly (@Welfare_Weekly) September 15, 2015

Media round-up: Corbyn silent during national anthem – it's an outrage! 3m poorest families to lose £1k a year in tax credits – all's good.

— David Schneider (@davidschneider) September 15, 2015

Perhaps the most telling response belonged to those who focused the entire array of their fault-finding acumen on the way Jeremy apparently left his topmost shirt button undone. It were as if the future were staked on a unique point, a master signifier or quilting point (point de capiton) that held the symbolic world together, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn's top shirt button.

The quilting point is that which is grasped for feverishly by neurotics, particularly those in fear of entering a psychosis. In a panic there is a desperate attempt to prevent the sliding and slippage of signification by the demand that things ought to be 'the way they ought to be' — in other words, a futile grappling for a foundational moment that will serve to cover over the circularity and lack within language (i.e. within the Other). An anxious rush of prescriptive demands quickly ensue in an attempt to sew the symbolic order back onto a stable signifier.

What do you mean, no master signifier? WELL THEN, FIND ONE. WHAT ABOUT THE QUEEN, or VETERANS? How about FASTENING THAT UNDONE BUTTON! SHOW RESPECT!

Of course it is not the empirical button itself that counts here; Tony Blair has appeared numerous times in shirts worn more casually than this, and indeed for a time the purposeful adoption of a casual style became a common part of the neoliberal managerial 'skill set', along with bosses who would pretend to be your friend and lend a sympathetic ear (while firmly opposing your membership of an established union). What mattered was the symbolic context, the intolerable eruption of popular support for Corbyn against the contingent background of dutiful grovelling to establishment rituals at the Battle of Britain ceremonials, bringing to a head an absolute clash of discourse.

Doghead

I remember the 1980s vividly, particularly the culture. During that time, swathes of the British population tried to present themselves as intensely self-interested. People went out of their way to convince you not only of how selfish they were, but of how selfish was the human being as such.

If you think about that you will see the ridiculous performative contradiction at the heart of any such enterprise: it is the very effort to expose to social view how normal selfishness is that destroys its very mundanity, its very normality. If it were simply a natural human constant, why would selfishness need to be performed and re-performed, and to have this re-iteration exposited and exhibited, almost as if didactically? Here one witnesses not self-interest as normality, as part of a securely 'natural' background condition, but as the foregrounded excess of a strenuous (even anxious) attempt to normalise it. Every attempt to show or reveal self-interest as timeless human nature begins with (and ends with) the excess of a performance staged within a historical culture.

This is why the cynical critique of 'consumerist' society, alleging individuals simply too self-interested to participate in collective projects, is very far from deserving the name of realism. Indeed this kind of cynicism, far from accurately tracking some kind of general truth, is an ideology springing ultimately from the philosophical anthropologies embedded in a historically specific series of liberal economic theories.

As Above, So Below

It's interesting that the Labour Party line at present is essentially Thatcherite anti-democracy: even if the people want anti-austerity, it cannot be offered to them; there is no alternative. This effectively positions the Labour party (insofar as it is strangulated by New Labour elements and the catachrestically named 'Progress' think-tank) to the right of even the IMF.

What a complete disgrace: a party that argues away its own oppositional power with the claim that the policies of their supposed enemy, the economics of Cameron and Osborne, are insuperable. Such a stance would be unsupportable against popular dissent; if it could be demonstrated that the will of the people had no democratic representation, that there was a terrible 'democratic deficit' at work, then that would amount to an admission that parliamentary politics is deeply broken. That would be a problem for the Labour Party. It would, in effect, deligitimate parliamentary politics, and thus the LP itself.

Enter Cruddas' dubious research company intending to show that people don't want anti-austerity. Showing us that 'black is white because it said so in the paper' is not an absurdity but the way things work. Manufacturing consent. Flexing the muscles of 'Rovean realism', proving that consensus reality can be constituted only from above. Telling us what the symbolic Other believes is precisely the way to tell us that our principles and desire don't matter; that we are only isolated individuals and can never amount to a consensus. 'Public opinion' as the construct of such research companies is a missile in the hands of political rhetoricians and orators, aimed at an audience keen to know what 'everyone else' thinks. This missile's payload will be policies no-one in particular has mandated, but which a mass dissemination of everyone else's opinion apparently has.

Let us recall that the big Other does not exist. There is no consensus, only dissensus. The Lie nonetheless functions, as it always does; the power of the Big Other resides precisely in its inexistence — its power or efficacy being both performative and relatively autonomous. A battle in that field — the murky field of the 'effectively true' — is always taking place, and we are at present losing quite utterly. The connection to a 'real movement that abolishes' stuff is lacking on the side of representation, just as whatever real movements exist lack representation. We have abandoned a Labour Party and an electoral politics that has abandoned us. Corbyn's fight inside the LP mirrors our own political struggles and may even stir them somewhat, but it doesn't quite touch them.

Take a bow, it’s over for now

If the complex situation in which an already self-contradictory Syriza managed to hem itself, together with all the impositions of the Eurozone, were to be distilled into a simple ideological message it would be, as Richard Seymour captured it: 'this is what you get for giving the creditors lip'. One can palpably touch the thick air of jouissance emanating from the direction of Schäuble et al, one can sense the simmering message 'don't fuck with us'. This is Mafia-style stagecraft, the attempt to so completely undermine, humiliate, ridicule and dehumanise the opponent so as to i) serve as an exemplary judgement to dissuade future potential opposition and ii) portray the victim as so inherently impotent that a cruel and cynical 'irony of fate' has finally cast them as their exact opposites, worse than the Eurozone itself. You can come with all your left-wing delusions, but be aware how far you will fall when we expose you as just another group of charlatans gasping for power.

I'm not saying that this denouement (and it is clearly the final act in the play) was inevitable.

The left-wing elements of Syriza, bolstered by the rising voice of Greek people, could have hegemonised the party and enforced democracy on it from below; public support for Syriza for a time came to resemble a social movement, but a fractured Syriza squandered the opportunity to connect with this power and bring it into the heart of its negotiations. Instead, led by erratic policies generated from its political inconsistency, it opted for its own version of technocracy; it tried to beat the Eurozone at its own game, and so of course neglected its radical grounding. It failed to follow through on its desire (the desire that had elicited so much public support for its proposals at election time) and because it gave ground it withered away, leaving only its worst elements. Not the vehicle that would take the voice of the people directly into the political battle, but a self-conscious mechanism — an ideological apparatus in fact — which proudly felt it could 'do business' on behalf of the Greek people. Ultimately, it failed to let go of itself and allow radical desire to transform it from below, preferring to attempt to stage-manage itself from above. It's a structural failure not un-typical of the left, but at least here one can lie and claim that this structure was totally imposed by the context.

At the same time, the fact that Syriza managed to get itself elected, and on an anti-austerity ticket at that, remains an irreducibly historical and concrete point. Potentialities, vectors of counterforce, are still encoded in that point. Syriza may not now access them, having suffered the utter humiliation it has. A movement, on the other hand, could. It would have to straddle, in a consistent — perhaps even dogmatic — fashion, the breach between social movement and political party, and by so doing demonstrate and reconfigure European politics. It would have to be prepared to acknowledge itself as conduit only, as channel for forces from below that would eventually supersede it. It would have to give itself completely to desire.

More useless impressionism. Maybe that's the extent of what I can do today.

Faces of Grim

The IMF report on austerity and debt reduction has attracted a fair bit of attention, largely because it suggest the UK's austerity is unnecessary.

But this misses the other side of austerity. Because the UK's financial system is at an exceptional risk of systemic failure, there is a compelling need to clear what the authors call "fiscal space". This is underplayed in the report, not least because it uses a closed-economy model – but the UK has the highest external debts of any large developed economy.

This is the grim logic of the situation we're in: our financial system is at permanent risk of collapse, so austerity must, in Cameron's phrase, also become permanent. And we end up with an entire political system gradually adapting itself to that reality.

James Meadway

If the permanent necessity of austerity is argued on the basis of a concept of economy dominated by a systemically risky financial system, then the arbitrariness of austerity can only be argued on the basis that economics should be neither exhausted in, nor dominated by, the management of financial risk. In such absolutely synchronous, amnesiac times as these, it can only be demonstrated: that the practice of economics is something other than exposure to financial risk. Yet how can this be demonstrated by a state that has given all its power and law to regulate the economy away, on the one hand to financial institutions, and on the other hand, to the principle of corporate self-management (while growing the power and law to regulate the lives of subjects)? If the 'logic' of the situation is grim, then it is because the underlying axioms defining the conditions of the situation, accepted without discussion, were grim to begin with. In other words, the grimness lies much more in that initial assent and acquiescence to those parameters than in the situation which, merely following those rules, results from it.

Furthermore, for whom is the situation grim? For the elites chewing tender lobster in their expensive dress-suits, mounted on cosy years of security? No: for our masters it is not a grim situation but the very definition of paradise on Earth. Grim is the task of storming that gilded blue-skied heaven with neither cloud nor bolt to summon, nor bodied rabble to profane its girded atrium.

Grimness is the very thing imposed by austerity, its innermost essence or gift — if one can consider this uneven serving of impoverishment a gift. But grim too is the possibility that at some point we might have to cease the bitter reflection on how utterly we have failed, and recompose ourselves with our faces bent forward. Grim is the determination needed to try again from out of a place all hope has abandoned.

UPDATE:

Unlike James Meadway I'm not a professional economist but it seems my grasp of the situation and a little reasoning took me a long way. Corroboration comes via comments Meadway later added to the discussion:

Austerity is totally unnecessary from the point of view of British society – if you are also prepared to derisk (which is to say, shrink and demobilise) the financial system.

It's absolutely necessary if your primary concern is to preserve that financial system.

Asked (by someone else) if austerity will actually clear 'fiscal space', Meadway replied:

No, the budget deficit has halved over 2010-2015. (Government debt is still rising, because the deficit is still greater than zero.)

The question then turns into one of economic management: given the objective (clear a "fiscal space" by shirnking government borrowing and, ideally, debt) what is the best rate of reduction of the deficit, given the need to keep growth positive? At some rates of reduction, growth can still continue. At others (as we found over 2010-2012), the rate of reduction will hit growth – which in turn means you have terrible problems shrinking the deficit.

The underlying problem, for our side, is that the objective is rubbish, regardless of squabbles over how to get there.

Like I said. The situation is set in view by assumptions regarding which contingencies (the dominance of finance) must at all cost be protected, and so if the situation appears grim, its because those framing assumptions over what it is and what direction it must move in are grim. It is fiendishly difficult, therefore, to speak of the situation changing in other directions without challenging those assumptions. It is not simply a case of showing that austerity 'doesn't work' or can't accomplish the task it is argued to accomplish; the point will also be far more to show that the assumed urgency of the task of austerity (the reduction of debt) can be neutralised to some degree through planning an economy which is not subservient to the endless demands for risk from the financial system. Rather than clearing space for (or filling up buckets in order to mop up after) the next big crisis, a crisis always inevitable in a risk-dominated economy, it is patently better to defuse the volatile element that keeps causing the mess. Derisking is a method of prevention and stabilisation, rather than a 'cure' that would only ever set up the next crisis while (through austerity) further exposing vulnerable social groups to its impact.

On Strategy and Identity

Recently I came across this quote from Leo Bersani, which backs up a feeling I have been expressing for some time now:

If psychoanalysis were to have an innovative role in a Foucauldian genealogy of the human subject in Western societies, it would not be because it explains our nature in terms of our sexuality (this would be merely an addition to the history of attempts to define a "human nature"), but rather because it defines the sexual itself as that which profoundly disorients any effort whatsoever to constitute a human subject.1

This in fine highlights one of my problems with essentialism, particularly with essentialism of a non-strategic variety; mimesis (Irigaray) I will admit is of profound value. Essentialism as the bedrock of an identitarian politics, however, I cannot but see as problematic and ahistorical. What is 'essential' about the human condition is precisely its lacking of essence, the pure historicity of the factical elements of which the subject is a constitutive transcendence. In this sense, all identity is at root 'strategic', arising in response to a lack of innate procedures and incoherent drives in the face of a contingently granted and historical environment. I only insist on this point for politically consequential reasons, although those reasons may also be ontologically determinate. In this respect I think it is well worth making a clarification of my fundamental position on identitarian politics, which must be based on proper distinctions.

It should be established that not all 'identity politics' are equal, and not all can be criticised in the same way, or dismissed as being 'merely' identitarian. So firstly, 'identity politics' is a term in serious need of disaggregation. It risks meaning everything and nothing, from Femen, bell hooks, the Black Panthers, Sufragettes to the arguments of a fandom like the 'furry' community. Obviously enough, the crucial moment of genuinely political movements is always in a dimension concerning struggle against oppression. However, there is further to this another distinction to be made between anti-oppression identity politics (anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-colonnial autonomy, self-determination etc.) and the privilege-politics type of identitarianism. We must recognise that making this distinction is a contemporary move, and not a categorical one; some privilege politics have radical historical roots. However, where privilege politics are practised in abstraction from their radical roots — often in situations where critique drift may have occurred or where reactionary currents have recuperated radical methodology and even terminological formulations — the distinction will hold and the axis of oppression will be on the side of the identitarian argument. This we see of course in Men's Rights Activism, Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, even manifest in such purportedly 'radical' (but wholly reactionary) movements as the Taxpayers Alliance and in the general ethos of collectives such as Sp!ked Magazine and their organization on the basis of indignation and antagonism towards 'political correctness' and a perceived failure of liberal multiculturalism. In all these cases reactionary currents within social movements (which may or may not have originally been possessed by a radical impetus or struggle against oppression) merely inherit or mimic the methodologies and critical strategies of anti-oppression (radical) identity politics and put them to use in order not to mobilise an oppressed party but to act as a buffer zone for the oppressor to incorporate and use to its tactical advantage the very ethos of mobilisation itself. Thus, here we find the tedious MRA spouting critical terminology expropriated from feminist critique and re-tooled for a somehow 'radical' defence of the status-quo, and accompanied by an affectation of all of the indignation and affrontedness that authentically belonged to the original context. Here then, is identity politics in its problematic manifestation: as identitarianism.

Let's be plainer: there can be no radical defence of the status-quo. There is nothing bolshy, political or activist in the so-called 'contrarian' views of a Brendan O'Neill figure simply because the existing order, the matrix of existing social oppressions, is already on their side. And when it is not totally on their side but only partially so, as in the case of Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminism, often the very meaning of the authentic cause (the struggle against and overthrow of patriarchal society) is risked for the sake of the defence of the existing dimension of oppression (where in society, exactly, are Trans people not already excluded?), so that the genuine cause is subordinated with respect to the defended oppressive axis.

It seems obvious to me that the regressive recuperation of critical terminology and methodologies by identitarian 'movements' (better considered perhaps not as social movements but as appendages of oppression) for reactionary defence of the status quo, this 'political' imposture through the reactionary assumption of radical means, is concomitant with the much more general acquisition of radical means for reactionary purpose found in neoliberal economics. The weaponisation of critique, its being transformed into an instrument of moral punishment and a means of eliciting shame — and a penitent process of self-instrumentalisation, self-commodification in accordance with the correct market, often presented as somehow therapeutic – attests very clearly to the process of its neoliberalisation.

My position is that there is nothing wrong (and very much which is radical, beautiful and good) in identity politics. But there may be a weakness in it strategically which predisposes it to a kind of exploitability by reactionary forces. The emphasis on identity, as such, to my thinking, is what exposes identity politics to the risks of critique drift and recuperation of its methods. It is not merely that social movements based on identity have strayed from their radical roots or jettisoned class struggles — indeed I do not see class struggle as a struggle of identity — it is rather that their multiple proliferation has been recast under neoliberalism as the plentitude of markets or 'fields' of merely competing (not struggling with oppression, but merely competing) ideas and lifestyles. This embourgeoisement or gentrification of struggle presents a perfectly post-political subjectivity who is free to assume and self-rectify (subject to market discipline, voiced as 'critique') an 'identity' which promises in itself to constitute a radical event of some kind. Bluntly put, the emphasis is all on being something, and not on doing something, as if the mere act of self-ascription were radical enough of an action to indefinitely postpone the need for collective political eventhood. It is, from the beginning, a rejection of revolution as such, a categorical denial that revolution can take place or is even necessary. Somehow, the dirty business of actually fighting against the oppressor can be short-circuited, the violence of overthrow can be circumvented, and we can all like nice liberals simply shame one another into becoming better people. I'm sorry to say this isn't going to work, and identitarians are going to end up deserving the labels of 'moralisers' and 'new puritans' that the right wing throw at them for their efforts to control the way others see them. Recognition of your identity by the other is not a matter of moral negotiation and the policing of practices, but a struggle, perhaps even an armed struggle. Indeed, to cite Hegel, the dialectic is 'a fight to the death'. This is of course what the radical element is, and once a social and political concern with identity becomes unmoored from this understanding that violence lies at the heart of every struggle, it ceases to be radical and becomes a bloodless identitarianism, its argument easily recuperated and used against it.

The strengthening of identity politics, its bulwark against becoming a mere series of identities 'competing' for representation (what I have dubbed neoliberal identitarianisms) can only come about as I see it through the de-centering of identity itself, that is, through the incorporation of dis-idenitification, the strategic refusal of identity, and finally the wreckage of the paradigm of identity itself taken as the ultimate identity, something in-assimilable as a self-determined identity. This would not require something like universal prescription of psychotherapy and the subjective destitution of every subject. All it means is something that Susan Buck-Morss has voiced, when speaking of the Haitian revolution:

[R]ather than giving multiple distinct cultures equal due, whereby people are recognised as part of humanity indirectly, through the mediation of collective cultural identities, human universality emerges in the historical event at the point of rupture. It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose cultures have been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits, and it is in our emphatic identification with this raw, free and vulnerable state that we have a chance of understanding what they say. Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences. A person's non-identity with the collective allows for subterranean solidarities…

We are not going to transform the world into a better place if we cannot constitute a 'we' to do it: the 'we' which is capable of directing or altering the flow of history is united not by common identity but by the universal and vulnerable state of being incapable of coinciding with any identity, the ineluctable removal at which every human being stands with respect to whatever they take to be their identity. Against the political dimensions of oppression which cross and intersect is formed a subjectivity, but this subjectivity is not radical in itself, not radical merely for being oppressed. It is radical only insofar as it is capable of fighting, and that means not simply being something in varied situations, but doing something — mobilisation in concert. Concerted effort in conjunction with others is possible only if the stakes are not totally subordinated to our self-ascriptions and to the ascriptive politics that affirm them; there is ultimately something negative and self-negating that we must each do. We have to assume each other's burdens, something not our own. We have to be at least this nugatory, this blasphemous, with respect to our sacred little selves. History is the burden of assuming such negation, the collective standing-apart-from-self and self-loss we must all suffer if there is any hope of salvaging the future. We will need much more irony than we seem able to currently muster.

Notes and References

[1] Bersani, Leo (1990) The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art, Columbia University Press p.101
[2] Buck-Morss, Susan (2009) Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, University of Pittsburgh Press, p.133

Left Intentionally Blank

It irks me no end to see Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek 'Finance Minister' under Syriza, persistently referred to in the press — even on the left — as a game-theorist, when his published position on game theory is very far from being an uncritical endorsement.

To quote from Game Theory: A Critical Text (2004):

As a glimpse of game theory's increasing confidence, we cited two prominent game theorists' explanation of the attraction:

Game Theory may be viewed as a sort of umbrella or 'unified field' theory for the rational side of social science… [it] does not use different, ad hoc constructs… it develops methodologies that apply in principle to all interactive situations. (Aumann and Hart, 1992)

To overcome the reader's suspicion that such exuberance was confined to game theory's practitioners, we also cited Jon Elster, a well-known social theorist with very diverse interests, whose views on the usefulness of game theory did not differ significantly from that of the practitioners:

[I]f one accepts that interaction is the essence of social life, then… game theory provides solid microfoundations for the study of social structure and social change. (Elster, 1982)

(Varoufakis & Hargreaves 2004 1.1.1)

What Varoufakis and Hargreaves noted was the overinflation, if not imperialism, of claims commonly being made about game theory both by the gamers themselves and the social scientists they had influenced, and so together they set about evaluating such claims.They did so from a position of immanent critique, which is to say that they deployed the methodology of game theory in order to demonstrate the insufficiency of its basic assumptions and presuppositions. Particularly damning was game theory's reliance on methodological individualism and a human subject figured as nothing but a preference-ranking. One of the implications of this dependency (on what is basically a liberal 'tradition' of assumptions comprising a set of individualist and preferentist theories of value) is that the ideological underpinnings of game theory undermines its claims to universality and throws into question its understanding of human behavior.

[We] felt that game theory's further substantial contribution was a negative one. The contribution comes through demonstrating the limits of a particular form of individualism in social science: one based exclusively on the model of persons as preference-satisfiers. This model is often regarded as the direct heir of David Hume's (the eighteenth-century philosopher) conceptualisation of human reasoning and motivation. It is principally associated with what is known today as Rational Choice Theory, or with the (neoclassical) Economic Approach to social life (see Downs, 1957, and Becker, 1976). Our first edition's main conclusion (which was developed through the book) was that game theory exposes the limits of these models of human agency. In other words, game theory does not actually deliver Jon Elster's 'solid microfoundations' for all social science; and this tells us something about the inadequacy of its chosen 'microfoundations'.

(Varoufakis & Hargreaves, 2004, 1.1.3)

It's my contention that a number of references to Varoufakis as a 'game theorist' in the press are simply the result of lazy research and bad journalism. It's as if you could summarise an economist's credentials merely by noting he co-authored a book called 'game theory'. This won't do. It isn't enough just to look at the titles of published works to establish a person's position on anything; perhaps it serves better to read past the title and take a look at what they are actually saying. Varoufakis is far better characterised as a critic of game theory.

Being less of a gnome

I don't like it when others write in an overly gnomic way, so I suppose I should resist the temptation as well.

I said:

The commonplace regarding psychoanalysis, at least in Britain, is that it makes everything out to be about sex. I do not think this is correct at all. Is it not the case that the sex about which psychoanalysis makes everything is not really sex as such, but a traumatic antagonism which sexuality covers over? Which is to say, that is what sex as such always is; as Lacan said, there is no sexual relation. So rather than everything ultimately being about sex, while sexual pleasure is thus the objective and the truth of all human endeavour, which would be nothing but a banal statement of hedonism, psychoanalysis says just the opposite: sex is a mask, an escape route from impossible desires, desires for the impossible. Nothing is finally 'about' sex, rather sex is about everything and nothing, functioning only as a temporary disconnection from the peculiarly human and maddening multitudinous dance of fractured drives beyond any principle of pleasure.

The gist of this was to correct the common misconception that for psychoanalysis everything is about sex. It was also in a way an assertion of almost the exact opposite: it is rather that sex is about everything. More precisely, sex is about everything apart from sex. The fact that human sexuality lacks a relation to a determined, substantive object means that sexual objects cannot but proliferate; the 'essential feature' as it were of sexual relationships is that they are inessential; the precise form a particular sexual relation takes is always arbitrary and cannot ever be naturalised except through social normativisation. Human sexual relationships are biologically under-determined and hilflosigkeit — that is, the extended period of prematurational social dependence which results in human neoteny — also results in a situation where the form taken by sexual relations can only be received performatively. Thus, their biological under-determination results in their historical over-determination. Furthermore, the constitutive ab-originality of sexual relations (their inescapably social genesis) coupled with the reflexive and mimetic nature of desire (it being always the desire of a desire) means that sexuality can function as a kind of template or exemplary case of constitutive displacement, primordial semiosis or Derridean differance, characterising slippage and an enchainment of signifiers without original signified. This same structure means that there is no Truth — no philosophical truth, no insight, no flash of the Real — to be found anywhere in sex, only arbitrarily and socially negotiated defaults and historical norms. Psychoanalysis recognises this; truth means something other than sex and is to be found elsewhere.