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.
This is the notion of society dominant in what I’ve recently been calling the mainstream neoliberal current (Obama, Paulson, etc), and which is characteristic of professional economics, rational choice theory, and the like. From the perspective of policymakers, the aggregate can be manipulated thru interest rates, tax policy, and other incentive systems; from that of business, it can be manipulated thru marketing and pricing. In this guise it is the object of Foucault’s technologies of governmentality.

From a very different perspective, that of the consumer immanent within the aggregate, there can be an experience of naïve agency: the capacity to vote with your dollars. The phenomenon is not limited to “consumer activism”, but can also be seen in the many micro-campaigns that seek change by attempting to convince individuals to alter their individual behavior – recycling is probably the most successful example, but others are legion (and mostly unsuccessful). To the extent that social agency is considered possible under neoliberalism, it is primarily thru the figure of the aggregate.
The collective is a very different apprehension of the social. One is not a member of the collective simply thru the numerical addition of one’s individual behaviors to those of everyone else, but because one is of a kind with everyone else. There is an abstract homogeneity that establishes a commonality of essence and prescribes – if it does not achieve – a commonality of purpose within the collective. The collective is beyond one’s individual control, it dictates individual goals and even personal identity. Historically, practical administration of the collective has been vested in the state or Party, yet even these agencies consider themselves subordinate to far larger forces – History, Race, Nation, Equality, Freedom. The collective’s ends are heroic, a clear contrast to the banality of the aggregate.

Despite the individual’s reduction to a cog in a much larger machine, participation in the collective can inspire a powerful feeling of agency with the sense that the individual is part of a world-historical project or the feeling that one is realizing oneself by making oneself proper to the collective. The movements that in most of the world led the way out of the long crisis of liberalism – fascism, Communism, national liberation – mobilized the collective as a political subject to make change on a grand scale. The collective persisted after Fordism’s consolidation, animating numerous projects of nation-making, purification of the body politic, and cultural homogenization as well as, in important ways, the culture of the Cold War. The collective inspired not only top-down campaigns of purification, but grassroots demands that those excluded from the collective be granted access to it. The classic example of this phenomenon is the US civil rights movement.

As Fordism started to break down in the late 1960s, the collective lost its coherence – the global youth rebellion of 1966-1968 denounced the collective rather than demanding its realization. Yet it was the experience of maturing within the collective that provided the infrastructure of consciousness underlying these movements. The waning of the left under neoliberalism is partly due to the ideological shift in popular subjectivity produced by the new conditions, but this is not the whole story. Very often popular sympathies have stood with the left but proven impossible to mobilize using the models developed in the 1930s and 1960s (the irrelevance in current debates of large majorities favoring job promotion over budget cutting is only the most recent example). The collapse of the collective as a meaningful form of popular subjectivity in the face of neoliberalism’s relentless individuation goes a long way toward explaining this otherwise baffling development.

(Interestingly, some limited forms of collective consciousness have survived and even thrived under neoliberalism, most visibly the identity politics movements and other assorted communalisms around the world that peaked in the 1990s. This issue requires further analysis, but there may be a qualitative difference between the effects if not the sources of these two kinds of collectivism: Fordist collectives embraced an entire national society at a time when the national limits were also those of the economy. Neoliberal collectives, on the other hand, function more like marketing niches, their horizon of vision much more restricted than the nation even as the flows of capital that constitute the real limits of social relations have burst the bounds of the nation, leaving them constitutionally incapable of grasping the totality.)
Unlike the collective and the aggregate, there is no sense of agency in the alienated force. This is a power that stands outside of human will, seemingly a force of nature tho generated by human beings. The quintessential example is the market, yet it has appeared in other forms as well. Under Fordism, when the market receded and the economy was seemingly within the conscious control of humans, there remained an apprehension of the abstract forces dominating us: society, as in “It was society that made him go bad.”

Yet at this time there was the sense that these forces were susceptible to our comprehension and reform – if we could only erect the right structures and staff it with the right technocrats (a bureaucratic solution for a bureaucratic age). That is, there was a popular understanding that social problems were produced socially. In the history of capitalism, this is an exceedingly rare development. Its origins can be traced to the unprecedented degree of seemingly conscious control over the economy and the effect of the collective in counteracting pressures toward social atomization.

But such an understanding has collapsed under neoliberalism; for most people all that is left is the individual (radically free and fully responsible for his acts) and the market (a force of nature beyond our control). Earl is right that apprehensions of society are still with us, but they appear in disguised forms that explicitly deny the social and thereby prevent the nature of the crisis from being grasped.

It’s worth remembering that during the Depression, everyone – left, right, and in between – understood the crisis as a systemic collapse of capitalism. In hindsight, their understanding of “capitalism” was itself one-sided (equating capitalism with market forces and private ownership of the means of production, many considered the transition to a Fordist form of capitalism to be the negation of capitalism itself). Yet the contrast with today’s apprehensions of the crisis is revealing: the view that the crisis represents a collapse of the system is nowhere expressed.

This explains why there is a popular constituency for the Tea Party and austerity politics. By no means is it a majority of the public, but it is a significant minority. In a poll conducted after the debt ceiling deal, 34 percent believed that taxes should not be raised on families making over $250,000 to reduce the debt (about 2 percent of households are above this line). In a poll last March, 46 percent rejected the idea that “government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people” and one in three preferred to cut major programs rather than raise taxes to address the deficit (another 1/3 preferred raising taxes while 1/4 wanted to put off cutting the deficit over either option).

If we conservatively estimate that one fifth of the population is completely alienated from political issues (adding to the 17 percent that admitted they did not vote for president in 2008 the 2 percent who could not remember who they did vote for), the ideologically committed austerity/“anti-big government” advocates amount to nearly one-half of the total politically mobilizable population. This group has embraced the end of the social under neoliberalism, but that leaves a still larger group of people who reject the cruel and economically disastrous politics of the Tea Party – what of them?

The standard left critiques explain the disenfranchisement of liberals by focusing on the growing power and predatoriness of big business in politics. This was certainly part of the transition, but it can hardly explain the shift in popular subjectivity that occurred at the same time or the sustained failure of the vestiges of the left to generate popular support. This failure is even more pronounced after the chastening of American imperialism and the collapse of free market orthodoxy over the last decade, which should have vindicated the left critique, even as the social issues that supposedly turned the white working class against its “true interests” have receded.

The truth is that the same shift in common sense that empowered neoliberal individualism also pulled the rug out from under left-liberalism – and this was a shift that transcended narrowly political issues and extended into every facet of life. The raw material of politics has been reduced to the individual, the aggregate, and the market – for the left, as the right. This is a terrain upon which the right can thrive, while the left is limited to admonishing people to buy fair trade and fighting rearguard actions in defense of now parochial interests.

The reasons that liberal sympathies have been able to survive at all within a social system that makes them appear incoherent or particularistic requires further exploration, but for now I will conclude by reiterating the need to develop a politics that can negotiate this nearly impossible terrain. The search for such a politics must, however, remain sensitive to the fact that the crisis of neoliberalism amounts to an earthquake that will, over time, substantially reconfigure the political terrain. Out of these possibilities we must somehow find a foundation for the heroic without a futile nostalgia for collective modes of consciousness that are now gone.


  1. What is the character limit in posts? Can I send a reply to you and see if you are interested in it?

  2. Sure, send it to permanentcrisisblog@gmail.com. Less than 1000 words is best.