The astonishing reality of things
Is my discovery every day.
Each thing is what it is,
And it’s hard to explain to someone how much this makes me happy,
How much it’s enough for me.
If I stretch out my arm, I get exactly where my arm gets –
Not even a centimeter farther.
I only touch where I touch, not where I think.
I can only sit down where I am.
And that’s funny like all really true truths,
But what’s really funny is that we’re always thinking something else,
And we live truant from our reality.
And we’re always outside it because we’re here.
Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Flocks
What follows is a third exercise in the sharing of ideas, of visions (for the first, click here, and the second, here). The most recent essay by the invisible committee, Now, continues a reflection-intervention that began with The Coming Insurrection and To Our Friends, and offers a powerful critique of contemporary politics, along with a defense of “autonomy”. What is proposed here then is again a partial translation, summary and a critical commentary on their reading of the our capitalist economy.
If millions of people the world over continue to labour for salaries in centres of industrial production and service provision, and to be conscripted into such labour, millions of others are made superfluous by the same economy.
Even those employed work under increasingly violent forms of precariousness; their usefulness is at best measured.
The former eulogy of labour and social integration through labour of industrial capitalism (and its mirrored reflection in institutionalised socialisms and communisms) dies in an economy whose only aim is the expanding reproduction of itself, that is, of calculable benefits. The needs of workers and consumers are but the means to this end, needs which can and must be dominated and exploited, and in parallel, also ignored and forgotten, depending on their value. And the ever more rapid and expanded use of technology in production reduces increasingly large numbers to being valueless. If capitalism could reproduce itself without humans, then our fate would be finally decided.
The “commodity form”, with its domination of “use value” by “exchange value” in capitalism, or the sway of “spectacle”, under which all representations are in turn commodified, as analysed respectively by Karl Marx and Guy Debord, only take us so far in the understanding of the contemporary economy.
The “crisis” or death of labour, revealed in the growing superfluousness of the many, is testimony to the totalitarian nature of an “economy” that is essentially a form of government. Th economy of labour however was equally so. And thus the political absurdity, in the present, of a promised return to “full-employment” (under current conditions, it is not possible, as it was not in the past for different reasons and on a different scale), and the blindness, in the past, of the celebration of work, among political actors from the Right to the Left.
Salaried labour was a transformation of older relations of servitude. It also sought to and does create “slaves”, that is, subjectivities susceptible to and accepting of particular forms of administration and extraction of human energy.
“To make of a man the ‘the holder of his labour power’ and be disposed to ‘sell it’, that is, to make habitual the figure of the Worker, that is something which calls for a great deal of spoliation, expulsion, pillage and devastation, along with ample terror, disciplinary measures and death. The political character of the economy cannot be grasped if attention is given only to the returns on work; the latter has less to do with producing merchandise than with producing workers – in other words, a certain relation to the self, the world and others. Salaried labour was the way of maintaining a certain order. The fundamental violence that it contains, that which has us forget the broken body of the assembly line worker, the miner killed by a methane explosion or the burn out of employees under extreme managerial pressure, shapes the meaning of life. In selling her/his time, in making her/himself the subject of that for which s/he is employed, the salaried worker places the meaning of their existence in the hands of those for whom it is indifferent, or even whose vocation is to tread on it. Salaried labour permitted generations of men and women to live eluding the question of the meaning of life, in ‘making themselves useful’, in ‘making a career’, in ‘serving’. The worker was always free to leave this question for later – let us say, until retirement – while leading an honourable social life. And as it is ‘too late’, it appears, once retired to ask it, nothing remains but to patiently await death. One will have thus succeeded in spending a whole life without ever having really lived. Salaried labour therefore relieved us of the cumbersome burden of meaning and human freedom. Munch’s The Scream does not draw for nothing, today still, the true face of contemporary humanity. What this despairing figure does not find on his jetty is the answer to the question ‘how to live?'” (89-90)*
The fragmentation of the society of labour offers opportunities for reorganisation, as well as risk. “The risk is that humans will make an unpredictable use of their time and their life, even taking to heart the question of its meaning”. (90-1) To avoid then such “existential” freedom, the new “free” time is colonised, invested by demands for consumption. Objects and patterns of consumption become socially obligatory, deemed the source of pleasure and joy. To not consume, or to not wish to do so, is eccentric, even a sign of psychological malaise. And should the temples and fantasies of consumption fail to seduce, technologies and professions of control fill the gap. And when these fail, the police intervenes.
“Instead of seeing the current headlong rush towards security and the orgy of control as a response to the September 11th attacks, it would not be foolish to see them rather as a response to the established economic fact that it was precisely from the year 2000 that, for the first time, technological innovation lead to a reduction in the volume of employment. It is now necessary to be able to survey en masse each of our activities, each of our communications, each of our gestures, place cameras and sensors everywhere, because salary discipline is no longer sufficient to control the population. One can only dream of offering a universal basic income to a perfectly controlled population”. (91)
But what is fundamental in the new economy lies elsewhere. To preserve the political reign of the economy beyond the salary, money is made to pervade ever larger spaces and times of social relations. Money is made to become the universal mediator of activities. “In the absence of labour, the necessity to earn money must be maintained”. (92)
“We are witness to a handover of reign in the heart of the economy. The majestic figure of the Worker is succeeded by that, rachtic, of the Crevard [in french, the word suggests someone who is dying of hunger, who is dying, but who is also greedy] – for however much money and control may infiltrate everywhere, money must also be lacking everywhere. Everything, from now on, must be the occasion to generate a little money, a little value, “a small banknote”. The ongoing technological offensive should also be understood as a way of occupying and valorizing those who can no longer be exploited through salaried work.” (92)
The consequence is a sort of global “uberisation”, where all that was formerly given, shared, must now be paid for. Friendship, trust, even acquaintance, the foundations of giving and sharing, thus become suspect. To give what can be sold (an object, a “service”, a space and so on) is symptomatic of stupidity; something that is rendered equally almost impossible given the omnipresent need for cash.
“It is constantly and from whatever perspective necessary that we be counting; that the fear of ‘losing an opportunity’ be the spur of life. … Everything must from now on enter the domain of the profitable. Everything in life becomes of value, even the waste. And we ourselves become crevards, waste”. (93)
As the marketing of ways of life, in all of their many dimensions, proceeds apace, capitalism reveals itself not so much an economy of production and sales, but of transforming relations and realities into countable, measurable values. Herein lies its oceanic reserve of accumulation. “Capitalism is the universal extension of measure“. (94)
In economic language, this finds expression at one level in the concept of “human capital”. The idea that human beings own themselves, their labour and what they produce through it can be traced back to classical political economy and to Marx. And in both instances, “man” (for it was invariably male labour that was conceptualised) was the owner of something which he could supposedly alienate while still remaining himself. The labour was given over, as dictated by need, but the labourer continued to be, in the process, whom he was essentially, the owner and therefore master of his labour power.
“With the theory of human capital, man is less the holder of an indefinite aggregate of capital – cultural, relational, professional, financial, symbolic, sexual, health -, than s/he is her/himself that aggregation. S/he is capital. S/he arbitrates permanently between the growth of what s/he is as capital, and the fact of selling to this or that market. S/he is inseparably the producer, the product and the seller of the product. Successful footballers, actors, stars, youtubers are logically the heroes of the epoch of human capital, they whose value coincides completely with who they are. The micro-economy thus becomes the general science of behaviour, whether it be in the company, the church or in love. Which is to say that each becomes a company guided by the constant concern of self-valorization, by a vital imperative of self-promotion. Man becomes essentially the optimising creature – the Crevard“. (95)
“This movement is that by which capital appropriates to itself all human attributes and by which humans make themselves the neutral basis for capitalist valorization. Capital no longer just determines the form of cities, the content of work and leisure, the imaginary of crowds, the language of real and intimate life, the ways of being in fashion, needs and their satisfaction. It also produces its own people. It engenders its own optimising humanity”. (96)
“The logic of value now coincides with organised life. The economy as a relationship to the world long ago exceeded the economy as a sphere. The madness of evaluation obviously dominates each aspect of contemporary work, but it is also as master that it reigns over everything that escapes it. … Measure has become the way of being obliged to everything that aims to exist socially”. (97)
If the commodity economy of abstract exchange value already implied the command of measure in trade, what contemporary capitalism expresses is the full colonisation of “use-value” (that is, the uses that things can be put to, how they are used and the “nature” of those who use them) by abstract “exchange-value”. Current technologies for the surveillance and measure, in real time, of all of the aspects of life, make the nightmare of a generalised valuation our truth.
In this new golden cage, money, the universal mediator of all activity, becomes the new divinity. Present, yet absent (because never enough), it is money that miraculously makes possible the socially sayable, readable, visible; it is the measure of life and reality. (100) But this god, like all absolute deities, gives and takes; the world seemingly condensed to measure masks, obliterates, the local, the particular, the here and now of irreducible singularities.(102)
The god of miracles renders every thing and every event inexplicable; each is replaced or follows on another without reason. The proliferation of monetarily mediated social relations thus equally divorces us from comprehension. Events come and go without apparent cause, except for the presence or absence of money. And each relation mediated by this universal standard, thereby being made equivalent and substitutable, becomes in fact incomprehensible. If I can buy all that is associated with love, then I may buy anyone who meets the criteria of lover. The singularity of the lover, and our understanding of her or him, becomes completely irrelevant and impossible. The only danger is that I fall upon an enemy. But then it is the role of money also to pacify. Friendship and love bind singularities. Where strangers appear, perhaps threatening, money buys relative concord between the anonymous.
“To come out from under the economy is to have stand out the reality which it covers over. The exchange of goods and all that it implies of fierce negotiation, defiance, deception, wabu wabu, as the Melanesians say, is not specifically western. Where one knows how to live, these kinds of relations are only practiced with strangers, people with whom one is not attached, who are distant enough for a dodgy dealing to become a general conflagration. To pay, in Latin, comes from pacare, “to satisfy, to calm”, notably by distributing money to soldiers so that they can buy salt, a salary therefore. One pays to have peace. All the vocabulary of economics is in the end a vocabulary of avoided war”. (103)
[Gloss: The religion of capitalist money may be said to suspend the principle of sufficient reason, revealing capitalism to be, as is the case with all forms of government, an exercise in constructing an ontology. In the court of miracles governed by the circulation of money, the reality that is generated is one where “the true world transforms itself into a world of fable, where the will of men takes the place of reason for what comes to be. … One has a desire for a cherry, and low and behold that at our command a cherry tree appears charged with ripe fruit. Another command, and the fruit flies towards our mouth and, if we wish, divides itself in half in the air, such as to let fall the pit and the spoiled bits, so that we do not have to spit them out in turn. Pigeons on spits fly in the sky and fall spontaneously into the mouths of those who are hungry”. (Quoted from: Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby ou la création, 52-3) The words are those of the 18th century German philosopher Christian Wolff; where he speaks of will, we may speak of money. And if Wolff thought that the suspension of causality to be logically impossible, for it would translate into the death of reason and the will, and thus of a rational Christian God, capitalism has generalised a Calvanism without God, or a form of government where it is the irrational (because setting aside all local or immediate causality) and global movement of money capital, the new God, that determines the reality of events.
Under such a religion all social life is equally rendered friendless (friendship depends upon trust, trust in the consistency of others and things, something impossible under capitalism). War, the permanent possibility of war, accordingly structures all social relations, such that “peaceful” ways of interacting are but war by other means.
The implications of all of this for thinking through and practicing anti-capitalist politics are far reaching. Any politics cannot ignore where and who we are today. And thus in our time, any “radical” political subject is first and foremost the anonymous many, the indifferent, the subjects that capitalism sculpts through the universal power of money. A politics that claims to begin with something more than this (with a specific people, of one kind or another), risks reproducing the very logic of war that capital is so easily able to absorb as well as appealing to something which may in fact no longer exists (the sociologically “natural” revolutionary subject). Even more fundamentally perhaps is that such a revolutionary politics seeks to anchor itself in an ontology (of the subject, the world, of time and space) that is either being rapidly refashioned or that has simply ceased to be. And thus the need to imagine radical politics differently, perhaps in the guise of a destituent power.]
Fernando Pessoa, in the poem The Keeper of Flocks, composed under the pseudonym of Alberto Caeiro, wrote:
I don’t believe in God because I never saw him.
If he wanted me to believe in him,
Without a doubt he would come to talk with me
And come in my door
Telling me, Here I am!
(Maybe this is ridiculous to the ears
Of someone who, because they don’t know what it is to look at things,
Doesn’t understand someone who talks about them
With the way of speaking looking at them teaches.)
But if God is the flowers and the trees
And the hills and the sun and the moonlight,
Then I believe in him,
Then I believe in him all the time,
And my whole life is an oration and a mass,
And a communion with my eyes and through my ears.
But if God is the trees and the flowers
And the hills and the moonlight and the sun,
Why should I call him God?
And if money, our God, is all of those things which can be consumed, if it is the measure of reality, then what would occur should we strip it away? We might perhaps then discover the illusions of this false God, of a universality that portrays everything as quantifiable and thus the same; the same in its utter meaninglessness. The nihilism of capitalism, we suggest, cannot be broken by a new herculean will (individualist anarchism aside, in whom could such a force even be found, imagined?), but rather by a gesture of suspension, of retreat, first from money, and with it, from all of its prophets and prophecies. Pessoa, in the same poem cited above, spoke of “thinking” through gestures – “If I stretch out my arm, I get exactly where my arm gets” – of “thinking” from the place of the body – “what’s really funny is that we’re always thinking something else,/And we live truant from our reality./And we’re always outside it because we’re here.” To think in the present, to rediscover the weight of our singularities without the re-affirmation of closed identities, to understand that freedom lies not in the sovereign subject or State, but in the permanent possibility of creating and recreating unmediated forms of life with others, was perhaps Alberto Caeiro’s pagan teaching; a teaching that perhaps points beyond capitalism.
*Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to the essay Maintenant, published by La fabrique, 2017.