Whose determinism?

In early and mid-twentieth century debate, the problem [of the relationship between the economic ‘base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’] was understood to be that this model was crude and reductive: superstructural phenomena, such as art, were supposed to be read off as a ‘reflection’ of economic circumstances. In the face of this some Marxists (…notably Gramsci) produced versions of the theory of ideology which loosened in certain ways the ties between base and superstructure. Thus for Gramsci ideology was a matter of ‘hegemony’ – the way in which a particular group and its ideas might come to be dominant in a complex and shifting field of class conflict – rather than being merely a simple reflection of the economic base. While this had the advantage of making the Marxist theory less crude, the disadvantage (or so it may seem) is that the theory becomes much less precise. Indeed, if there is a kind of autonomous struggle taking place in the ideological realm then it is no longer very clear what the Marxists’ insistence on the primacy of economics amounts to – perhaps not very much more than a commitment to a certain political position and set of social values.

[..]

While some artists may be conservative, others… are… consciously revolutionary, while still others, it seems, have no obvious political position one way or the other. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities? And, if the answer is yes, does not an even more profound problem present itself: if Marxism can find a place for every phenomenon, does that not make it unfalsifiable and (as Sir Karl Popper famously alleged) something that has more of the character of religion than of science?

— Hatt, M. and Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press (emphasis added)

While reading this chapter of Hatt and Klonk for MA Art History, I took particular exception to this piece of argumentation.

As Marxist Anthropologist Maurice Godelier has pointed out, ‘superstructure’ is a spectacularly bad translation of the term ‘Uberbau’ (Godelier, M. 2012 The Mental and the Material, Verso, p.6). This is all the more apparent when considered in the context of the metaphorical usage Marx put it to. The relationship between Grundlage and Uberbau (often translated as ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’) in the German language is that between the foundation of a building, below ground, and the building itself. There are no ‘super’ structures here, only the necessarily sunken foundation and the perfectly normal, quotidian, structure it supports. Furthermore, it is in the Uberbau, as a ground floor everyday building that we live our lives, not ‘in the basement’ (ibid.). To point this out is to attempt to demolish those deep-seated prejudicial twins of misreading which would either render ‘superstructures’ as some kind of airy-fairy imaginary order which floats above society miraculously ordering it (which would constitute a return to idealism), or to an entirely servile, if material, ‘cultural appendage’ to society wholly determined by economic forces; rather the Uberbau is the ‘built environment’ of society itself, constituted and reproduced by the material practices of everyday life. This level of material practice is, in the sense elaborated by Althusser, ideological, meaning not ‘informed or constrained by erroneous thinking’, but comprising of varying institutional structures or practical regularities, which furthermore are generated, disseminated, ideologically reproduced and to some degree policed by what Althusser calls ‘apparatuses’. Foucault will also refer to apparatuses (dispositifs) when he maintains, like Althusser, that a certain subjectivity is produced by a particular kind of apparatus. The point to stress here, in both Foucault and Althusser, is the relative autonomy, even the historical contingency, of institutional structures. Far from being entirely determined by an economic base, the everyday Uberbau is a place of contestation, the site of ideological struggle and social antagonism, not merely its reflection or expression.

Marx was not the economic determinist some might portray him as, nor are most Marxists. The direction of causality is certainly not fixed by the metaphor of a building supported by its foundation; Marx is no more saying that economics ’causes’ the culture of society, any more than a foundation ’causes’ the shape of a house. Nor is he restricted to the argument that the metaphor might itself suggest as its meaningful limit, in which the form of a foundation conditions the kind of building it can support in a unilateral manner. Indeed Marx himself has furnished us with examples of how political acts occurring at the level of the Uberbau may impact and affect the development of productive forces at the level of the Grundlage (economic base) [Singer, P., 1980, p.56]. Were Marx a thoroughgoing economic determinist, this would not be possible within the confines of his work.

It is true that Marx does at times adhere to a teleological model of history in which a sense of purposiveness remains and sometimes speaks of the Uberbau as expressing ‘the unconscious’ of history. However, to subsume all moments of Marx within a kind of over-arching economic eliminativism (in which nothing happens but for ultimately economic reasons) is a misunderstanding. It could even be said to be an anachronism borne of current neoliberalism’s own disavowals. Indeed, it is only within the last few years that a minister of education could write in a white paper that the purpose of higher education is ultimately to ‘generate value’ and is to be set in view most aptly in terms of such an investment. It is interesting that the more a purportedly ‘Marxist’ economic determinism is fervently rejected on a cultural level, the more it is embraced – in inverted, reactionary forms such as ‘austerity’– as actual policy at the level of governance; in this way a generalised criticism of a deterministic Marx seems to mask the very deployment of a reactionary economic determinism. Do government departments such as the ‘nudge unit’, which attempts to remould subjectivities and society in general by attempting to push people’s economic behaviour in certain directions, not bespeak a deterministic outlook, do they not presuppose a certain commitment to the direction in which an economy ought to be going? Is it not teleological, if not outright anthropomorphic, today, to allow financial markets to ‘decide’ best policy (right up until the point when bankrupting all major financial institutions in the western hemisphere is no longer justifiable as ‘best’ practice, and politicians must decide that things simply ought to be going differently)? Would this moralised economic teleology be any more acceptable, any less ‘religious’, than orthodox Marxism, on Hatt and Klonk’s account?

It is inaccurate to reduce orthodox Marxism to economic reductionism in the way that Hatt and Klonk seem to want to; their argument that, were ideology autonomous and therefore economic determinism inarguably disproved, would not in the least entail a refutation of Marxism. Rather it only entails the refutation of a supposed Marxism that was contained entirely within economic determinism, which is something that would remain to be shown.

Understood in this way, it is possible to argue that Hatt and Klonk’s understanding of the base/superstructure model of earlier Marxist art historians may either comprise of genuine criticism aimed at a vulgar, although perhaps widespread, mistranslation of Marx which those art historians adhered to, or consist of a ‘straw man’ argument in which a crude understanding of traditional Marxism has been retro-fitted onto those art historians by Hatt and Klonk. Either way, the base/superstructure model of a society determined by an economic base, which seems to dog Marxism more from non-Marxist critics who do not read Marx in the original and receive their understanding third-hand, than from Marxists who translate the original for themselves, must be at all cost jettisoned. That Hatt and Klonk read this as actually jettisoning Marxism itself only compounds errors made along the way.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

Some comparison between the semiotic notions of coding, overcoding, and undercoding (Eco, U., 1976/1979, A Theory of Semiotics) and Erwin Panofsky’s phases of iconological insight (Panofsky, E., 1939, Studies in Iconology) seems possible. In particular, the two movements accomplished in Umberto Eco’s given coding-overcoding sequence (p.134) would seem to correspond to the first two stages, i.e. the pre-iconographic and iconographic phases, in Panofsky’s three staged iconology. In the first stage we have a purportedly ‘innocent eye’ that merely inventories the more conventional signs (‘here is a woman bearing a pair of eyes in a golden saucer’), and then at some indeterminate point, the possession of iconographical knowledge (one could also say ‘cultural knowledge’ or ‘cultural familiarity’) would determine the onset of a second stage. In that second stage the rules of the first code still operate to identify the elements, but become the basis of a further rule that determines their applicability, in effect telling us how to apply them (‘here is a conventional image of St. Lucy’). In some respects one may even say that the meta-rules or overcodings provided in the iconographic phase serve to suspend the usual operation of the first, ‘innocent-eyed’ layer of codings.

If we read Panofsky alongside Eco, we can say that according to Eco’s definition of overcoding:

While iconology recognises a specific arrangement or organisation of items to refer to a particular icon or theme, it is only through the ‘innocent-eye’ coding of these individual elements or items that they first become recognisable. Iconology thus practices an overcoding on the basis of this coding, a further rule to its rules; first it recognises (de/codes) the items but then, on top of that, it recognises (de/codes) their specific arrangement, their co-occurrence or constellation, as having further specificity on the plane of cultural meaning.

Thus, in the case of the image of a woman carrying her eyes in a saucer, which Eco gives (and here is an example) the first level of coding is composed of the conventional elements {woman, saucer, eyes, carrying}, but a further recognition of a more specific, rarer coding or convention is needed in order to see that, in the arrangement of these elements in the context of a certain kind of image within a certain cultural history, we find ourselves before a very specific though conventional figure or symbolic representation of St. Lucy. Suddenly, the woman is no longer a woman, the eyes are no longer (just) eyes. Through the constellation with the eyes she holds and the golden saucer that bears them, against a background of cultural knowledge, a further, symbolic figure appears. If not exactly nullifying the conventional coding on which it was initially dependent, this new image certainly pushes it to the back burner. This is so because a new and different register or context has opened — the iconological — and the ‘innocent’ register, a necessary step but lacking overcoding, has been superseded. At least, this would be the standard reading of the iconological hermeneutic translated into Eco’s semiotic terms.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

However, as with the standard criticism of Panofsky’s stages — the ‘innocent eye’ is retroactively constructed as a virtual position we were never really in (i.e. free of cultural associations) — it is also possible to hold a critique of Eco’s overcoding. Are we not always already looking for a referential context when we first approach an image, approaching its elements only as features within a synoptic whole, rather than already having broken it down into recognisable atoms of reference to be reassembled? It can be argued that on first approach there is not an empirical stock-taking of discrete elements, but that the initial approach beholds first their ensemble.

In other words, on the first approach we are already operating in the realm of overcoding, rather than coding. This is perhaps tantamount to stating that we are already acculturated, socialised, and thus iconologically operative, when we first encounter the image. If so, then is this encounter nothing other than the site where cultural differences, rather than monocultural confirmations of ‘competence’, might appear?

The problem with the transcultural (or multicultural) audience regarding the monocultural icon is that according to Eco such an audience ‘undercodes’, that is to say, ‘in the absence of reliable pre-established rules’ (p.135), such an audience guesses at a general cultural meaning, constructing a ‘rough’ coding. Thus according to Eco, ‘images produced by an alien civilization… are understood by way of undercoding’ (p.136). Clearly this statement is insufficient when read in the light of an always-acculturated audience, which is to say, an audience for which ‘reliable pre-established rules’ always exist: it is not that these rules of decoding are unreliable, nor under-established; it is simply that they are culturally different to those of the artist and of his or her attendant iconologists of the same culture. The criterion of ‘reliability’ in determining the subject of an image would then come down to this rather dismal question: as a foreigner, are you culturally competent enough to understand what the artist is representing? Here it is appropriate to ask why this sharing of cultural context with a posited presence or intention is considered the ‘reliable’ overcoding, whereas an equally acculturated audience from a different ethnic or social background, bringing a variant overcoding, is not reliable. Why are these other kinds of overcoding to be regarded as deficient, as ‘undercodings’? Clearly one reason is that they would not necessarily fall into line with, i.e. reproduce, the existing discourses of existing powers. And here we are mired with the problem of a monoculturally-embedded authorial intentionality, which only a panel of cultural hierophants are sufficiently equipped to divine for an ‘ignorant’ laity. This audience, it would seem, remains constitutionally uninformed by its divergent cultures, and can only graduate from its alien undercoding to ‘proper’ overcoding by a passive process of learning from those experts who write the official cultural history, and produce the proper knowledge. Certainly there are problems of cultural imperialism here.

I thus propose to replace Eco’s problematic conception of undercoding — specifically in this transcultural instance — with what we might choose to name contestant overcoding. And in principle, all overcoding — including those instances in which the authors of artworks themselves accompany their work with cultural explanations — can be shown to be contestant overcoding.

In this way it would be possible to bring together a conception of contestant overcoding with that of hegemony (in the case of Gramsci) and of enchainment (in the case of Laclau) to provide a theory of meaning in which differences of interpretation can co-exist, if often antagonistically.

Objectivity versus Disguising the Neoliberal Subject as A-subjective Expert

These days I’m more and more frequently finding important political insights in the most unusual of places.

In ‘A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity’ [1] Stephen Gaukroger rightly draws an important distinction between ‘objectivity’ in a scientific sense and its pseudo-scientific use to indicate an attempted process of desubjectification in the human sciences and in political, ethical and aesthetic domains.

Neoliberalism, at least in its theoretical sense, proposes such a desubjectification process in the field of economics: to remove the human subject who decides policy, in fact the very dependency on human judgement itself, from the economy, thus linking the shaping of policy directly to the functioning of markets (called, misleadingly ‘consumer choice’, as if it were simply a matter of the spontaneous freedom of a neutral ahistorical mass). Such a proposition capitalises highly on the pseudo-scientific usage of ‘objectivity’ — and its conflation in the popular imagination with scientific objectivity — as pointed to by Professor Gaukroger.

The values that have come to be associated with objectivity, such as impartiality and lack of bias, have not only been seen as guiding scientific enquiry, but have been extrapolated into the social and political realms, underpinning notions of fairness and equality. […] Here we face a important problem in our own culture’s aspirations to objectivity. Its pre-eminence as a goal has resulted in other values masquerading as it, despite their having no relation to it and, in fact, serving to usurp genuinely objective judgements. What is often referred to as ‘number-crunching’ – the reduction of decision-making to quantification and measurement, and the exclusion of anything that cannot be treated in these terms – is a prime culprit here. Appeals to objectivity have been used to vindicate a culture of management in which targets are set so that standardized results can be generated, statistically analysed, and compared. Such practices are not necessarily subjected either to reasoned judgement or to the empirical evaluation of particular cases but typically bypass any form of independent or object reasoning at all. The idea that decision-making can be mechanized trades on a fundamental misunderstanding of objectivity, namely that it consists in removing, as far as possible, all elements of judgement from the interpretation of data. This supposedly eliminates individual prejudices and biases from interpretation and decision-making, offering something untouched by human brains, as it were. This is a widespread misunderstanding and a dangerous one. A recent example is the rejection, in government circles, of thinking about what universities should be teaching in favour of a model of consumer (student) choice. Competition theory suggests that consumer demand will produce judgement-free results, without reflection on the aims of pedagogy and education in our culture, and their role in fostering the values of our civilization. A methodology that bypasses the assumptions, values, and beliefs that inevitably accompany the exercise of judgement thereby makes claims to neutrality and objectivity. Standardized decision-making procedures stand in for reflection on the nature of the problem for which the decision is sought in the first place. Wholly misconstruing the nature of objectivity, they employ pseudo-scientific means of bypassing understanding and evaluation in favour of something that is deemed to transcend bias and prejudgement.

Of course this conflation at the heart of neoliberalism leads to glaring contradictions, as when MP Nicky Morgan argues the case for the forced transformation of all state schools into business-led academies with the line that ‘being a parent is not enough to be a school governor‘. According to Morgan, one must be a business-minded individual in order to be able to grasp the good. This clearly departs from the theoretical idea of neoliberalism as a process of removing human political subjectivity from the process of shaping human culture and instead centralising supposedly neutral (or at least ‘natural’) markets. On the contrary this centralises a certain culture of businesslikeness — or in other words, actual concrete businesses represented by individual business-leaders. In this respect neoliberalism, in the actually-existing formation we are presented with today, should not be looked at purely as the attempted market-mechanisation of government, but rather as the attempted installation of a particular, political subjectivity, the subject of business, as the central co-ordinating power in government. Thus neoliberalism in its practical manifestation never eliminates the human from the process of government (as in the wet dreams of libertarian free market fundamentalists and certain, misanthropic, political posthumanists) but rather achieves the installation of particular humans — business-leaders, with the corresponding subjectivity — in that role. It is in no way the elimination of bias, and indeed it is the entrenchment of bias towards the political outcomes of the business-centred right wing of politics.

The elimination of human judgement, of the political subject, and its replacement with systems drawing their data from markets is in any case utterly disastrous. Look at what happened with Microsoft’s recent attempt at AI, quickly withdrawn from public view. The idea that an openly scouting bot perusing the ‘market of ideas’ and conversations of the internet would somehow arrive at a representative view of humanity, rather than rapidly devolving into a holocaust-denying, genocidal anti-semite does not take into account the always-already-biased nature of markets, the way they are not simply snapshots of reality but artificially constituted by synthetic scarcification and allocation of resources, etc. As such the political human subject turns up there in a distorted, inverted or fascistic form, wreathed in all the ideology that drives a purely marketised semblance of co-existence.

The same mistake is made: the naiveté which simplistically holds that markets within a capitalistic frame are capable of mediating, expressing or reflecting human desire; that a market which sells as many doses of poison as it does apples obviously indicates a human ‘preference’ for murder; that, while ‘the demand’ is there for them, we should produce AK-47s for export. That this is what we want, the market said so. This is not data, gathered as given — nor is this merely pricing signals — it is the message of the medium itself, commenting on its own process of social reproduction, its own ideological grounding. So between neoliberalism as the centralisation of markets in decision-making in an imposture of a desubjectified mechanised democracy (of sellers and buyers), and neoliberalism as the in-actual-fact assault upon democracy (of political human subjects), there lies nothing but an unpitying violence. Even if it worked, it wouldn’t.

Ref.

[1] Gaukroger, S. (2012) A Very Short Introduction to Objectivity, Oxford University Press, pp.2-3

Why your intellectuals are not my intellectuals

I’m rarely in favour of clinical pathologisation, but insistent nostalgia and an unusual attachment to the fantasy of British Values might well be considered an illness, particularly prevalent amongst the privately educated group of people who become politicians. One can palpably trace the line of affective, deeply melancholic loss suffered in adulthood to the division and pressure of education severed completely from any socially nurturing principle, itself rooted in the model of a deeply patriarchal schism in the familial household. It is clear that the symptom becomes the fetish that sustains the fantasy of what was ‘lost’: one must perform the loss in order to enjoy what is missing in it, subtract any kind of potential for human advancement from the social domain, isolate and privatise it, or else the faceless rabble will prevent you from enjoying the tender, lonely ache of your own ‘social’ calling. Such seems to be the formation of a British conservative subject position.

If it stopped there, however, it would be easy to point to in the form of particular or individual subjectivities. Rather, it pervades society as ideology. It soaks into all social layers. Nostalgia particularly afflicts the poor, where it finds populist right-wing support (not least from mass media) in the form of patriotism, xenophobia, racism and all forms of bigotry. It distorts and warps what influence the left has had, leading to mangling of theoretical categories in the production of inconsistent and wholly meaningless monsters such as ‘the white working class’ as brandished by salivating ‘kippers. Again, this is fairly easy to identify; but what about the way the nostalgia of political conservatism affects the more widely educated?

Here, the late Ellen Meiksins Wood’s concept of ‘the abuse of civil society’ has a poignant aptness to contemporary Britain, as presented by Jacobin magazines’ The Retreat of the Intellectuals. In this piece, Wood outlined the way in which civil society as a concept once amenable to the left came to fog relations of exploitation and class. Today we see the fallout in the way that humanitarianism, and not socialism, is the dominant signifier of social good. Through this shift it is possible to argue that, for instance, celebrity-driven media ‘campaigns’ are more progressive than political demonstrations on the street — a position it is only possible to take if class antagonism has been completely obscured. It is also obviates the need for organic intellectualism, requiring only that a celebrity have a media-savvy agent capable of projecting a differently nuanced branding. It does not proceed in anything like a bottom-up fashion but instead commands and directs support. A celebrity that appears in a staged and produced sound-bite advocating social justice may reach more people and penetrate many social layers, but it does not do so from within the social composition itself. The principle of democratic self-government which is supposed to underpin civil society is not supposed to mean waiting for inspiring celebrity videos to rouse a flurry of petitions on a disconnected issue-by-issue basis with no articulation of class; the mobilising force cannot be other than the self-determination of class itself. Otherwise, as Wood puts it, we are left with a ‘mockery’ of civil society and the idea of democracy. Indeed, what we are left with is the neoliberal appropriation of the military concept of the ‘campaign’ — as a means to create, identify and expand markets. It is not with each other that these markets are at war, they merely ‘compete’ — a wholly unanimous affair; the undisclosed military element behind any media or ad campaign is ultimately at war with human desire, and its possibilities for social self-determination in other, non-capitalistic, forms of social co-operation.

It’s rather unfortunate that we prefer celebrities to intellectuals. Even our ‘public intellectuals’ are far more akin to (if not actually) celebrities than sites of expression for organic, social intelligence. That is to say, it isn’t unfortunate in a haphazard way, as if it were an unlucky accident. Indeed it’s entirely the kind of product that neoliberalism intends. It’s unfortunate that this is what our current social situation produces under the name of intellectual. It’s very difficult to look at Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry, for example, and see something like an organic, social intellect coming to expression through them. It doesn’t. What comes to light is merely the self-assurance of an expert, a repository of sanctioned lore, at best perhaps a technician or curator. That’s what neoliberalism requires and produces, not intellectuals.

I don’t know if this is a particularly British problem, but it is reflected even within the university, and particularly in the still-lingering emphasis on Fregean, Popperian and Carnapian argumentation prominent in philosophy departments, and the almost universal shunning of continental philosophy. It is likely that sentimentality, traditionalism and nostalgia drives this emphasis in a largely unexplored and unacknowledged way. In particular, the British Humanist Society and the general institutionalism of the Royal Society enjoy a strong influence that goes by without criticism. These and other historical biases pervade the notion of the intellect that the public of the UK inherit today, so that, for example, the ‘clever’ commenter in a string of replies on a discussion of ideology is still regarded as the one that points out the role of conflicting religious views in the history of war — and not the one that points out the social stratifications on which these conflicts are parasitic. Indeed the regard for intelligence seems to begin and end (all too abruptly, and without further historical elaboration) with the enlightenment critique of religion. In popular articulations, an intelligent critique of capitalism is wholly lacking. This is ridiculous, because much of the critical acumen and precision of thought that is exercised in the former could be applied — and in a sense is even more applicable, relevant, and appropriate — in the latter. It’s always bothered me that humanistic ‘public intellectuals’ — who appear never to have advanced further than the enlightenment critique of religion in their philosophical education — who would vomit at the idea of surrendering human self-determination to a deity in the sky will nonetheless roll over in the most supine acquiescence before a neoliberal agenda, that is, to the utter subordination of human education — surely the acme of all endeavour — to the rule of financialised markets. It’s bothering because these people are supposed to be intelligent, yet can’t see the contradictions in the way they have made their own position one of irrelevance, of always fighting a past already overcome. The truth is that they are not fighting at all. The appearance of shadow-boxing is in fact the alibi used when British Humanists are doing what they have done, symptomatically, even since the later 18th century: they are doing nothing other than re-enacting their triumphalist ‘victory’ — the imperialist victory of the scientific mind over the superstitious, stupid, dark interiors it claimed to have finally colonised. It’s pretty much what the younger generation would call a ‘circle jerk’. It’s pretty pathological — just look at the repetitiousness, the compulsion to repeat.

So today, as a government which basically tells seven million students ‘fuck off, you’re too poor to deserve state-funded education‘ handwaves their protest, financiers rub their hands in glee at another social group they can capture and thus socially direct, and the BBC signally fails to care, we should read our situation as one that is so pathologically mired in British nostalgia for the good old days that it cannot recall that intellectualism means thinking socially forward, not regurgitating defensive self-congratulatory fantasies of mission civilisatrice and conquest.

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:

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. We are pressed to cover over the lack of a master signifier, whether it be respect for queen and country, veterans, or for the fastening of a shirt button.

Of course it is not the empirical button itself that counts here; Tony Blair for example 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). Those chilling images — at one time everywhere — of a grimacing Richard Branson with his long wild locks and a denim shirt unfastened to show a seductively casual décolletage spring to mind.

What mattered more lately 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. A furious impotence hovers over and within the British Establishment, resulting in a reflex of savage authoritarianism whenever you poke or provoke it.

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.