Over at Poetix Dominic has an interesting post up responding to Pete’s recent discussion of normativity over at Speculative Heresy. Dominic writes:

The crux here seems to be that “man” is not in himself a normal animal: normative accounts of human being are best taken as descriptions of the commitments we make to ourselves and others as preconditions for various kinds of social being, and the capacity to bear such norms is rather haphazardly instantiated in our animal selfhood.

This split between the normed human being and the ab-normal human animal plays out in Badiou, for example, as a tension between the “de-subjectivising” pull of egoic self-interest and the possibility of constructing a political “subject” which affirms (or “verifies”) egalitarian norms. But there’s a problem here: egoic self-interest is arguably also a normed expression of human being – neo-liberalism explicitly affirms it as a norm, as a precondition for higher forms of social organisation (e.g. those based on competitive markets). The conflict between Badiou’s ethical “good” (tenacity in the construction of truths) and “evil” (de-subjectivation, the saggy victory of the flesh) can be seen as a conflict between rival normative commitments rather than between committed and uncommitted being as such. What Rowan Williams calls the “false anthropology” of neo-liberalism does not merely declare, in social Darwinist fashion, that human beings are intrinsically self-seeking creatures: it also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.

There’s a good deal more in Dominic’s post, especially with respect to heteronormativity and discussions of heterosexuality coming out of the Christian Right, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular as I think it represents something that is truncated or underdetermined within the framework of critiques of neo-liberal capitalism. While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.

read on!

What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production. If this subject must necessarily be a pure subject or subject without content or particularity of any form, then this is because NLCI must establish the equivalence or identity of all subjects populating the social field. In other words, for this social system to present itself as just– and I am not suggesting that this social system is just, far from it –it must be able to hold 1) that the lowest subject is equivalent to the most privileged and successful subject in both the eyes of the law and how the system functions (i.e., that the lowliness of the low is the result of her failure and is her responsibility), and 2) that distributions of wealth are not systematic effects of social structure and how it is organized, but rather is an effect of the individual industry of agents within the social field. These claims are dependent on the positing of a pure subject or subject-without-qualities as the essence of what social subjects are, ignoring any discourse about fields or milieus of individuation (in Deleuze and Simondon’s sense) out of which subjects emerge or are produced.

Second, for NLCI to function it is necessary that the law have a particular form that governs social relations among agents. While the self-interested or self-seeking nature of neo-liberal subjects is certainly one of the key notes of NLCI, this false anthropology is not, in and of itself, sufficient to establish the NLCI as a (dis)functioning system. Were the system composed only of agents pursuing their self-interest we would not have the NLCI, but rather the state of nature so vividly described by Hobbes and Spinoza. More fundamental than agents pursuing their own self-interest is the normative and legal system that mediates relations between agents in pursuing this self-interest. In its minimal form, this normative and legal system is one that revolves primarily around the attribution of duties and debts. That is, it is a normative and legal system that is particularly focused on the grounds under which contracts are maintained. Just as the subject-without-qualities of NLCI is a subject divorced from milieus of individuation, transcendentalized, and universalized in a false transcendental anthropology, the form of the law as the grounds of contractual obligation and debt is a normative system divorced from any milieu of individuation and premised on a subject-without-qualities whereby the equivalence of all subjects is guaranteed so that the law might effect itself despite the inequality inherent in the functioning of the law at the level of concrete social relations. Likewise, such a structure of legality also underlies the structure of private property. These two features, the form of the law and the subject-without-qualities, are, I believe, the fundamental notes of NLCI, not the picture of social relations defined by the pursuit of self-interest.

When Marx argues that Hegel must be turned on his head or describes Kant as a priest of the State, it is this which Marx is referring to. It was Kant, of course, who theorized the subject-without-content and who transcendentalized the structure of debt and obligation underlying contractual relations in the social field. If Kantian normativity and conceptions of the subject are priestly relations to the State, then this is because it ignores the manner in which these conceptions of normativity and the subject are themselves contingent products of certain modes of production, instead turning these forms of normativity and subjectivity into fetishes (in Marx’s sense) that have effaced their own milieu of individuation in order to effectuate themselves all the more forcefully, unjustly, and insidiously while undermining the possibility of any critique of these structures of normativity by transcendentalizing them and thereby treating them as universal and essential structures of all social relations. Likewise, if Hegel must be turned on his head, then this is because he treats these social relations as issuing from the domain of the ideal, the subject, thought, or spirit, rather than structures of production. In both cases effective modes of critique and engagement are undermined by virtue of these structures being detached in thought from their real conditions of production. This, I think, is part of the reason that a focus on ideology within political theory is such a danger for actual political praxis as it tends to obscure this material base and render it invisible to the theorist, creating the illusion that social organization is merely a matter of ideas, the ideal, or signifiers. It is also the reason I see great promise in something like Vitale’s “mediology” (what I would call onticology) and his networkology as at least these forms of analysis, focusing as they do on material mediations, have hope of getting at the base through which these ideal forms are individuated or come into being.