29 August 2011

Changes in the spatial organization of domination

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 2 of 4
By Chris Wright

We have passed from what Guy Debord called urbanism to what I would call suburbanism. Suburbanism is a new resolution to the spatial problems which arise with capitals main dynamic of separating the producers from the means of production, from each other, and from their products, while then needing to bring them back together in a manner appropriate to valorization. All of the above not only applied to the labor process inside a production facility; it applied to the entire structure of space.

The de-linking of lived space from worked space in the form of workers moving to the suburbs (and not even to the suburbs their job moved to) breaks the relationship between workplace and residents. The effects of this break were visible in many strikes in the 1980s and 90s, where workers in the plants were often white and had fled from the now Black and Latino neighborhoods where the plants were located, undermining any possible unity. The Chicago and Detroit newspaper strikes were an especially stark presentation of this problem.

In the United States in particular, a series of national peculiarities came together to allow a singularly divisive housing policy: suburbanization.

26 August 2011

“SCAB!” Spontaneity and Organization on the Verizon Picket line

The strike is over! This was the largest US strike in four years and seems to be a victory. But it would be a mistake not to learn lessons from it and imagine that this was simply a good strike, and good strikes win. We must draw out the peculiarities of the strike within the larger historical context and use this to raise and push forward important questions about the larger trajectory past capitalism.

The most remarkable images of this strike came from the picket lines, where members of CWA, IBEW, their families and allies taunted, harassed and at times possibly assaulted scabs (for more stories see this Labor Notes article).

23 August 2011

The labor process and consciousness

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 1 of 4
By Chris Wright

I had earlier written a reply to "The Tea Party marching toward oblivion", but I made the mistake of writing it in the comments area and my browser crashed.  It was long, so I have not re-written it, but Walker's post "Apprehensions of the social" once again inspires me to take up the questions presented here.

The ideas here are not new.  For what it is worth, Jacques Rancière has already taken up these very categories of the aggregate, the collective, and the individual in his essay "The Hatred of Democracy". Gáspár Tamás has also touched on these themes in his essays on what he calls Post-Fascism, which is focused on "how citizenship is becoming an exclusive privilege."  Gillian Rose also took up these specific concerns in her last works, and it is especially evident in the introduction to Mourning Becomes the Law.  My own work (presented in talks at the first and second US Historical Materialism conferences in New York City in 2010 and 2011) is an attempt to develop a concept adequate to the problems presented here.

The current problems we are seeing I believe have to be understood in relation to significant changes in the labor process and the valorization process, to changes in the spatial and temporal organization of domination.

20 August 2011

The task at hand

In the previous post, AB gave a clear statement of what our goal is: the search for a politics that “might give us a world without the ‘permanent crisis’ of capitalism”. But she then noted that “we seem at times to be strategizing for the next battle against capital rather than overcoming it.”

I think we need to acknowledge that we’re facing two distinct problems here. First, how to resolve the crisis of neoliberalism. Second, how to transcend capitalism. Unfortunately, for precisely the reasons we’ve been discussing, contemporary subjectivity is manifestly inadequate to the project of overcoming capitalism. What’s more, the struggle to overcome capitalism will necessarily be played out on the terrain shaped by the resolution of the crisis of neoliberalism. That terrain might open a path to overcoming capitalism, or it might throw up new, insuperable obstacles.

Can we safely dismiss the idea that spiraling levels of economic dysfunction and intensifying competition over how to divide a steadily decreasing pool of total global wealth will lead us to the transcendence of capitalism? If so, then the urgent task of the present is to formulate a way out of the crisis — that is, a new regime of capitalist accumulation.

Figuring out how to revive accumulation is certainly distasteful, and given the global failure to solve the increasingly acute environmental effects of accumulation, it’s also quite dangerous. But it does give us the opportunity to try to shape the outcome in a way that could generate the preconditions, of both structure and consciousness, for a politics whose explicit goal is the overcoming of capitalism.

This may be controversial, and I’m open to a different approach, if one could be formulated.

18 August 2011

Comments on Apprehensions of the Social; or Revisiting Smith -- why the aggregate is compelling and what the left needs to do

This started out as a comment on "Apprehensions of the social: Aggregate, collective, alienated force; or, Contribution to an explanation for why the left always fails," but it got too long, so I guess it is a separate post.

I think the distinction made in the original post between the aggregate, the collective, and alienated force brings some analytical rigor to the discussion. The aggregate, of course, was the vision of society put forward by political economy, beginning, notoriously, with Mandeville (Fable of the Bees), but achieving its doxic articulation with Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations). It is this classic articulation of the aggregate, which still echoes today, that seems to be causing much of the failure of the collective to gain traction. The question of what is the precise attraction to this articulation of society cannot of course be answered without digging into the layers of mediation between subjectivity and the modes of production under which we live. Which equally suggests that reinvigorating the collective as an alternative mode of subjectity would require a change in the mode of production. We are back to Marx 101.

15 August 2011

London Riots

While the ongoing crisis in the US has taken on the form of a farcical political confrontation over raising the debt ceiling, it has erupted in the much more immediate form of violent riots in England. The common feature of these very different events, and what indelibly marks them as belonging to our present moment, is their tragically frustrated character, that they seem unable to produce any awareness of a path beyond the irresolvable contradictions that constitute our current lived reality.

11 August 2011

What is Wisconsin On?

This has been a busy news cycle, I really want to respond to all the craziness going on but I'll keep myself focused on what makes me most livid: the recall elections in Wisconsin. Democrats gained only two of the necessary three senate seats, which means the republicans maintain their majority in all branches of Wisconsin state government. This is not a victory for the left as some might argue due to the jolly-good-challenge we gave to republicans in their home districts. This is not a victory for the right either. They did effectively nothing. This is a defeat for the left.

09 August 2011

Apprehensions of the social: Aggregate, collective, alienated force; or, Contribution to an explanation for why the left always fails

Earl makes a very interesting observation here: “’Society’ as an abstract entity rarely appears as such in popular consciousness. In Fordism it appeared largely as the state, in Liberalism it was largely national tradition. It doesn't seem like ‘the market’ experienced under neoliberalism is any less a mode of appearance of ‘society’ than either of these.”

My interpretation would be somewhat different, but I think it points us in a productive direction that may also be relevant to the discussion of agency in the comments on Earl’s last post. It may be useful to distinguish between an aggregate, a collective, and an alienated force. These are all one-sided apprehensions of the social totality, but the predominance of one or the other at different historical moments has a decisive impact on the possibilities for political change.

The aggregate represents the sum total of individual decisions, which remain atomized and seemingly unrelated.

06 August 2011

Crisis threatens to blow up again

The crisis of neoliberalism is intensifying. The Tea Party reluctantly gave up its attempt to bring down the global economy when Obama gave in to all their demands, but the withdrawal of government spending has further sapped confidence in the “recovery”. With revised numbers, we now know that the initial economic contraction was deeper than previously thought and the “recovery” more anemic: since growth resumed, it has proceeded no faster than population growth. In other words, the US economy is completely stagnant – and that assumes that the growth we’ve seen has been real rather than an artefact of speculative bubbles, which is by no means a safe assumption. The sole bright spot for the US? The unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percent last month – because 193,000 gave up looking for work and removed themselves from the labor force. The fact that the average duration of unemployment is now twice as long (40.4 weeks) as at any time in the 60 years preceding the crisis explains why they gave up.

Meanwhile, the situation in Europe is deteriorating. The EU’s attempt to staunch the crisis with new terms for Greece quickly proved completely inadequate as Spanish and Italian bond yields soared, threatening to make their public debt burden unsustainable. Thus far only the EU’s small economies – Ireland, Portugal, Greece – have been crushed by the bond markets. If either (or both!) of the much more significant economies of Spain or Italy were brought down, it would take the entire European financial system with it. With the European Central Bank committed to self-defeating neoliberal orthodoxy (bank head Jean-Claude Trichet “beseeched political leaders to speed up efforts to cut their budget deficits and remove impediments to growth, like overly protected labor markets”), and European national leaders at least as baffled as those of the US about what to do, no path out of the debt crisis seems available.

After months of dismissing the possibility, suddenly analysts are seriously considering the prospect of a “double-dip recession”. But that question, tho of considerable psychological importance, misses the point. Measures of GDP can only approximate the production of value in the economy – the fictitious value of an expanding speculative bubble, for example, exaggerates growth during its expansion, and exaggerates contraction when it bursts. For this reason, there is a very real possibility that, in terms of real value production, the economy has been contracting thruout the so-called recovery. A return to nominal recession would merely reveal this temporarily obscured reality.

The volatility in global stock markets may or may not be the trigger for a new downturn. The bigger question is whether any new, more adequate approaches to confronting the crisis are emerging or not. There are two directions that change could arise from: elite or popular forces. Thus far popular dissatisfaction has been directionless and thus ineffectual (in Europe), misdirected and thus unproductive of a new approach to the crisis (in the Middle East), effectively repressed (in China), or simply unexpressed (in the US and Japan). Political and business elites are split between extreme austerity advocates and those willing to pursue modest stimulus efforts, neither of which looks beyond the limits of neoliberalism. If the crisis accelerates in the coming weeks, we should watch closely for any change in these circumstances.