When the Other Shoe Drops
Recently, I have been putting myself through a crash refresher course on political philosophy and social theory, reviewing Macchiavelli, Rousseau, Marx, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Murray Bookchin, and others. The most satisfying analysis of the contemporary situation that I have found is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude (Penguin, 2005), which was a follow-up to their best-selling Empire (Princeton, 2000). Hardt is a political philosopher at Duke University, while Negri is Italian, and spent four years in prison for conspiring with the Red Brigade, an Italian revolutionary group (though the charges were highly dubious). Negri and Hardt aspire to be the Marx and Engels of our time; like Marx and Engels, their collaboration meshes the theoretical depth of Continental philosophy and the pragmatic tendencies of the Anglo tradition.
Today, the entire stream of radical Communist and revolutionary thought has been marginalized and forgotten in the US, outside of abstruse academic circles where it is employed in a distanced and theoretical fashion, and in shrill coteries that produce newspapers and protests but lack any meaningful influence on mainstream debate. Communism is associated with the grey, bureaucratic, murderous totalitarianisms that developed under that name in the 20th Century. What is forgotten is why Communist and socialist ideology once posed such a dangerous threat to capitalism as an alternative to the oppression of oligarchic rule. Because of this history, the very notion of ideology or social theory continues to be shunned in mainstream progressive circles, which focus on reformist initiatives.
In Empire and Multitude, Negri and Hardt do a heroic job of revisiting and revising Marxist philosophy in the light of recent developments. Negri and Hardt argue that the main or "hegemonic" form of production in our world is no longer material production, as it was in Marx's time, but "immaterial production," the production of concepts, images, communications systems, and affective relationships. If industrial capitalism created "surplus value" by hoarding the excess productive capacity of labor, our post-industrial capitalism creates value in a different way, by "expropriating" the "commons," in other words, putting tolls and privatized barriers around areas that could be freely available to humanity, such as intellectual property, the electromagnetic spectrum, or genetic material. The authors of Multitude see tremendous potential for human emancipation in the new collaborative networks of late-stage capitalism. They point out that the development of collaborative networks, such as those that produce open-source software, reveals there is no longer a need for a boss, or for any hierarchical form of organization. As an alternative, they present the possibility (though without providing any tangible models) of an emergent direct democracy that would function on a global level.
Negri and Hardt barely mention the ecological crisis in their work, and do not address the psychic and shamanic elements involved in transforming human consciousness. However, their work addresses one very real question that must now be explored, as we face the accelerating cataclysms of species extinction, resource depletion, militarism, and climate change: Whether the current political system -- with its compromises, corruptions, and multi-year cycles -- can be reformed, and transformed, to deal with these challenges to the continued survival of the human species. If not, then an alternative must be found -- and quickly.
As I learned while writing my books, certain areas and discourses are subject to extreme taboo and repression – repression not only of the ideas themselves, but even of the original intent behind the repression. In these arenas, the repressed material, when it is brought up to consciousness again, is greeted with ridicule, resistance, contempt, or utter blankness. I found this to be the case with psychedelics and psychic phenomena, along with other subjects. This knee-jerk dismissal is currently our attitude toward a straightforward reevaluation of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg, and so on. On the other hand, items of "revolutionary chic" – such as Che Guevara t-shirts – are mass-produced as commodities, made ironic, and in this way emptied of significance or threat. The extreme blankness produced by repression can be a positive thing, as it opens the possibility for a quite sudden and powerful "return of the repressed," and a reassessment without preconceptions. The prospect that an egalitarian planetary culture - where, instead of being free to own private property, we are free from private property, as Marx once quipped -- would be preferable to this one now seems so impossible that it might catch on.
The absence of social theory from mainstream discourse is underscored by the lack of class consciousness in the US today. Recently, labor conflicts are becoming more visible and virulent again – the writer's guild strike in Hollywood and the stage hands strike on Broadway are just two of the most publicized examples. Yet these particular disputes are not analyzed – as far as I know – in a larger framework that looks at the development of class relationships as a whole. This is the case even though the disparity between average workers' income and the income of CEOs has grown to grotesque proportions, becoming a form of economic apartheid.
There are good reasons to propose that, in the very near future, a post-Marxist analysis of current class relations and social consciousness could become extremely relevant. Right now, we appear to be approaching a severe breakdown of the US financial system, with deep repercussions for the global economy. The ongoing meltdown of the subprime mortgage market is, according to this hypothesis, stage one of this process, and a crisis in personal debt will be the second stage - the dropping of the other shoe. Below, I have enclosed a summary of the economist David Martin's recent speech to The Arlington Institute, a futurist think tank in Virginia. Two years ago, Martin made a speech at Arlington where he foresaw the subprime mortgage market meltdown with impressive acuity (a transcript is available on the Arlington's website). His analysis of the credit landscape suggests that mass defaults on personal debt, starting in December, are going to overwhelm the capacity of banks and insurers, who will not be able to find bailouts. Bank insolvencies would lead to the failure of the privately held Federal Reserve. Currently, OPEC and China are shifting their holdings out of US currency, and the Euro is becoming the reserve currency around the world.
Martin proposes that by March we will be entering an entirely transfigured economic landscape. The logic of his argument seems compelling to me. As bank failures and mass defaults begin to mount up, people are going to need interpretive tools to understand their new situation, in order to react to it practically and deal with it psychologically. During a crisis, there is the potential for a major opening of awareness and compassionate understanding, or for a large-scale retraction into fear-based belief systems and Fundamentalisms. Sometimes you have both at the same time.
The imminent economic plunge, if it happens, cannot help but act as a multi-generational wake up call. These days, when I talk to people – especially people in their twenties – I often find myself stunned by their ignorance of the economic and social situation that surrounds them. And yet, I grew up with the same attitude of jaded indifference and the senseless assurance that nothing about politics, economics, or the environment had any real meaning, or would ever affect me in any tangible way.
This jaded indifference is the result of intensive conditioning by the media – the phenomenon of the "flattered self" brilliantly described in Thomas De Zengotita's book Mediated – and an alienated education system which "produces subjectivities" that fit the status quo. These manufactured subjectivities are cut off from any sense of responsibility for the social reality or the life-world that sustains them, and they are carefully conditioned to identify with this alienation as a mark of pride -- celebrities like Mick Jagger and Jack Nicholson, or their younger iterations, are patron saints of cynical hipness and smug narcissism. The concept of the "production of subjectivity" is a major one for Negri and Hardt, who see it as the most important form of production in post-industrial civilization. I will discuss this in greater detail in a future piece.
In our contemporary context, Negri and Hardt posit a global "multitude" of working people, rather than the Marxist proletariat of the past. Class distinctions do not hold in the same way -- as Negri notes in an interview, it is the total organization of society that is the "enemy," not a particular class. They argue that the dynamics of capitalist development have been shaped, primarily, by the desires of the laboring multitude, and the antagonism between the working many and the ruling few. The New Deal, for instance, arose out of the worker's movements here and abroad, above all the Russian Revolution, which sent shock waves through the Capitalist system.
Over the last decades, the US system has been increasingly based on debt. Where the media encouraged comatose consumerism, politicians succeeded by offering happy-faced visions of a world without sacrifice while they supported policies leading to increasing economic apartheid. In an atmosphere of extraordinary plenty and overt overproduction of comforts and goods, where huge fortunes are controlled by the elite few, where enormous waste is built into the system and encouraged by it, it seems only natural to be profligate, to assume that the hard limits defined by the shrinking realities of income are actually the delusion, and the media displays of endless bounty are the reality. The delusional and self-destructive profligacy of the populace is, possibly, also an act of subliminal aggression against the system’s false promises and betrayals (the deepest betrayal being the delusion that material success leads to sustained happiness).
The profligate spending of the masses is also a natural – almost biological – reaction to the corruptions of Empire. When the populace sees CEOs, politicians, and millionaires routinely escaping from their crimes, fleecings, and defraudings, they subliminally identify with them, accepting that this is proper behavior within the society, and will be rewarded rather than punished. Of course, the assumption of massive personal debt was not a conscious and calculated strategy of the populace to dismantle the capitalist system, but it could be seen as an unconscious strategy of sabotage. This could be the case, even though the financial system developed predatory, invasive, and deceptive tactics to reach the consumer base with constant inducements to accept more credit cards, loans, and mortgage refinancings. Psychosis and hypnosis work together to reinforce consensus trance.
In his book The Politics of Subversion, Negri argues that the ultimate discovery of the 20th Century was that “Capitalism is impossible,” and this was proved by the failure of the two major attempts to reform the capitalist system, the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s. This failure of reformist efforts was ultimately linked to the integration of the world market, which defined a limit of capitalist expansion. These limits were reinforced by the many forms of resistance that developed in response to the extensions of capital, from guerrilla wars to Green Parties. According to political philosophers of the past, capitalism cannot exist without new markets to exploit, in order to create surplus value. Marx wrote that Capitalism “is the first mode of economy which is unable to exist on itself, which needs other economic systems as a medium and support.” Without a new outside to absorb and digest, capitalism confronts “devaluation resulting from overproduction.”
Naomi Klein’s new book, The Shock Doctrine, analyzes how contemporary neo-conservative practice is based on utilizing natural or manmade disaster as a tool for leveraging increased privatization. Internal landscapes of the Empire can in this way be re-colonized by capital, after a catastrophe, and transformed. This is another symptom of the evaporation of any outside realm for capitalism to penetrate and absorb. The mass psychology of capitalism centers on this continual aggression, this need to grasp hold of the Other and make use of it, to convert difference to sameness. When the entire planet has been converted to sameness, as is now the case, this aggressive psychology goes into regression, seeking to defend itself at all costs. This entrenched psychology -- given iconic form by football games and right wing "shock jocks" -- must be properly understood so it can be addressed and its violent tendencies defused.
After the 1960s, the main engine of the US financial system shifted from the production of finished goods to financial speculations and transactions. This shift was symbolized by the iconic construction of The World Trade Centers in the early 1970s, “tuning forks” for the new frequency of predatory finance capitalism that developed through the 1990s. Unlike factory production, financial speculation does not require a large working class. In the United States over the last decades, we have witnessed an astonishing degradation. As Capital moved its factories overseas, the US dismantled its productive infrastructure and converted a population of trained technicians to unskilled “surplus labor,” filling service jobs. In some ways, the US has reverse-engineered itself into a Third World country, with its nomadic elite no longer tied to nationalist obligations - the financial meltdown should make this clear. Today, our primary export to China is soy beans, a raw material, while we receive electronic devices and finished goods from them.
During this process, the US rulers were confronted with the difficult question of what to do with the huge pool of nonspecialist surplus labor no longer required for the functioning of the system. One solution was to warehouse them in prisons (the US is 5% of the world population with 25% of the world’s prison population), another was to put them in the military (but popular resistance to the draft has made this difficult); another option was to create new bureaucracies and expand unnecessary aspects of the service sector. Another idea – a short-term solution but one that created the temporary illusion of abundance – was to encourage the amassing of personal debt, and then to turn that debt into a financial product, through securities, and sell those bundled debts up the financial pyramid.
With the end of any ideological effort to reform capitalism, the oligarchic elite began to shift increasing amounts of wealth to the top of the financial pyramid, crushing the middle class and the working class in the process. As Negri and Hardt point out, this shift was accompanied by a change in paradigm. Instead of classes with different interests, we now have a dualistic divide between the “included” and the “excluded”. Politicians incite and manipulate the fear of being part of the ever-expanding group of the excluded. For this reason, to take one recent example, Bush vetoed the child health care bill. To keep the fearful populace in line, the ruling regime offers "Neo-Malthusian" policies, and enforces a divide between respectability and misery.
It is increasingly obvious that the short-term thinking behind these arrangements has created a fragile and unsustainable situation. Something, or, more likely, many things all at once are soon going to break. At that point, the US political system's drift toward authoritarianism (as documented in Naomi Wolf's The End of America) may be given another strong push. However, as we have seen in Iraq and New Orleans, the control apparatus that is emerging is nothing at all like the efficient organization of European mid-century Fascism, driven by a mythological teleology and collective fantasies of racial purity. Instead, the postmodern form of authoritarian control involves a crude application of force and a general sloppiness, an almost uncaring attitude even toward its own intentions. For this reason, it is possible that a new level of authoritarianism and an intensified, nonviolent movement for positive change, orchestrated by civil society, could exist at the same time, at least for a while. But any significant change would require a serious raising of social awareness and consciousness of oppression among the populace, along with a deeper collaboration among progressive groups.
An imminent meltdown of the US financial system, if it is indeed on the way, should be welcomed, despite the hardship it may cause to many of us, our friends and relations. The system of globalized post-industrial capitalism is quickly destroying the planetary ecology, and if it is allowed to run unchecked for much longer, we will forfeit our future on this planet. Historically, crisis is the crucible for transformation. If the illusion of US prosperity disappears, the world may be receptive to alternative development models. After all, China and India are seeking to achieve the "American Dream" promised to them by decades of our pop culture propaganda.
With the approaching economic collapse, the Left has one more opportunity to emerge from dormancy and build a social program and a transformative plan of action. Negri and Hardt suggest that a revolutionary shift might not emerge in successive stages over time, as in previous insurrections, but in one sudden unfolding: "It may be that insurrectional activity is no longer divided into ... stages but develops simultaneously. As we will argue in the course of this book, resistance, exodus, the emptying out of the enemy’s power, and the multitude’s construction of a new society are one and the same process."
This possibility is based on Negri’s fascinating view of the nonlinear dynamics of historical transformation. He suggests, essentially, that events lie on a spiral, and an entire complex of concepts and organizations can reassemble itself all of a sudden, based on patterns of the past that are lost to conscious awareness. The long history of humanity’s struggle against oppression is available to all of us, encoded within us. Negri’s rhizomatic view of transformative processes calls to mind Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of “morphogenetic fields” as well as the Jungian archetypes, defined as clusters of psychic energy that can spontaneously appear within the psyche of the individual or society. It also fits the alternative model of time and development that some visionary scholars find encoded in the Mayan Calendar. According to this hypothesis, the entire complex and rich history of radical thought and praxis could suddenly emerge once again, in a new iteration, when conditions are prepared for it.
The immediate need for the progressive community is to articulate a positive agenda, along with tactics and strategies for bringing this agenda to fruition in the shortest time possible. The main thrust of the “Left” in the last decades has been criticism and complaint. This has failed to create a powerful attractor or an organizational infrastructure for social transformation. As the Dalai Lama put it, everyone wants a better life. If you can show them how to get there, they will follow. The Left has failed to achieve this simple task. Regeneration of the movement requires a new visionary paradigm that integrates the spiritual shift made by the counterculture since the 1960s with a compassionate and egalitarian program that has tangible solutions to offer to a broad spectrum of the populace.
Considering the preponderance of military force, there is no hope for violence as a tool of social transformation. Any radicalized program should focus on an absorptive strategy that neutralizes its potential opponents by engaging and transforming them - a Tantric approach, that sees no dualities nor enemies. If we are going to save the world situation from pitching over into the abyss, the media – especially the mass media – has to be intensively repurposed to beam out a new paradigm that integrates sustainable practices with inner transformation. The mass media could be used for the “production of subjectivities” focused not on the toxic "American Dream" of omnipotent ego, competitive greed, and endless material abundance, but on sustainability, interconnectivity, community, and psychic development. By my reckoning, this unlikely reversal has to happen in the next few years.
Image of Antonio Negri by PE Weck, used via a Creative Commons license.