Over at Cyborgology, David has written a great post responding to my earlier post on McKenzie Wark. I don’t disagree with anything he says about the pressing political issues of our day, however I do think he quite misunderstands what I mean when I say that we’ve witnessed the erasure of sites of politics. Here I am talking quite specifically about the difficulty in identifying geographical locations where we can effectively engage the contemporary system of capitalism in which we find ourselves enmeshed. I am talking about the practice of politics, not the question of where the political issues are (which he nicely underlines in his post). When I use the word “site”, I am quite literally referring to geographical sites, localized in time and space, and where to engage so as to produce change.
To see what I’m trying to get at, compare contemporary capitalism with late 19th and early 20th century industrial capitalism. Under industrial capitalism, the site of engagement is quite clear: the factory. Workers are able to go on strike, shut down the factory, and thus leverage capitalists or owners of the factory for better working conditions. They have bargaining power because of the way in which the factory is dependent on their labor. This form of political engagement was, in part, successful because factories and capitalists were far more dependent on local workers, due to limitations of communications technologies as well as limitations in transportation or paths of distribution.
Notice the object-oriented dimension of these points: transportation (roads, automobiles, airplanes, shipping routes), communications technologies (telephones, internet, fiber optic cables, satellites), local workers and factories (material bodies), geographical sites and locality (placements in material space and time). These are all elements of what Braudel, in Civilization and Capitalism, refers to as material structure of possibility that afford and constrain possibilities of engagement at any point in history. My thesis is that contemporary cultural Marxism, coupled with the rise of postmodernism with its focus on the semiotic and discursive, has generated a blindness to material culture and therefore poorly understands why our contemporary capitalistic system functions as it does and how to properly engage it.
With the rise of factory automation, financial capital, and global capital, the question of where to engage becomes far more difficult. With the rise of factory automation, a deskilling of labor arises rendering factories far less dependent on skilled labor. Object-oriented ontology, actor-network theory, and the new materialisms can cultivate some insight on these material transformations due to the emphasis these positions place on objects and material things and the role they play in affording and constraining human social assemblages. Material transformations due, in large part to new technologies, diminish the ability of workers to leverage capitalists because, insofar as little skill is required to do these jobs, they can be easily replaced by other workers. With the rise of globalization, it becomes possible for factories to just shift production to geographical localities with more docile and disciplined populations, diminishing the leverage workers have over capitalists. In the case of financial capital, it is difficult to discern just where labor can leverage financial institutions at all.
These are the points I was trying to get at with my remarks about contemporary capitalism being a hyperobject characterized by massive redundancy. “Redundancy” here refers to the ability of the contemporary capitalist system to always shift production of both goods and surplus-value elsewhere geographically, thereby nullifying worker leverage. As a result, redundancy, made possible through massive transformations in both transportation and communications technologies, has significantly increased its ability to discipline workers and quell resistance.
The claim that there’s been an erasure of sites of politics does not entail that there’s been an erasure of the pressing political issues and problems that David so nicely outlines in his post, but that today it is very difficult to identify where to effectively engage this system so as to address those issues. This problem has been exacerbated by the rise of cultural Marxism (the Frankfurt school, Althusser, Zizek, etc.), as well as postmodernism. In their focus on the critique of discursive systems, the semiotic, ideology, narrative, and textuality, these orientations of thought have cultivated the belief that it is enough to debunk these systems to produce change (an effective strategy for the issues of “identity” politics, but not so much capitalism). As someone who has a fairly intimate awareness of decision making processes in corporations, I’m well aware that corporations are largely indifferent to public sentiment towards them as well as axiological arguments so long as they can demonstrate an increase in quarterly profit to their shareholders. This suggests that while strategies of debunking and moral condemnation should, by no means be abandoned, they are ineffective strategies for dealing with corporations. As Luhmann taught us with his system-theoretical perspective, these strategies simply are not speaking the same language as corporations– a language organized around economy or the binary code “profitable/unprofitable” –and therefore are unable to produce change in these systems (these systems don’t register such communicative acts at all). One might object that it’s governments, not corporations, that protest movements are targeting; that it is there that the change will be produced. But the issue is similar here. Due to the way in which corporate money and politics have become intertwined as a result of Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United, government has become deaf to moral and ideological critique. Politicians are simply unable to compete in elections without these monies and therefore turn a deaf ear to these sorts of strategies.
If I nonetheless hold that we shouldn’t abandon practices of critical debunking and protest, then this is because I still see them as serving an important function, though one very different from the one claimed by cultural critical theorists and activists. Where activists and cultural critical theorists see themselves as striving to persuade corporations and governments to do things differently, a systems theoretical perspective suggest that these forms of practice are about forming revolutionary collectives or solidarities. While these collectives do not do much themselves to change governments and corporations, they could reach a critical mass capable of doing so.
However, producing that change through these collectives will require, I think, adopting strategies different from standing in front of Wall Street and protesting. All I am calling for is greater attentiveness to material culture and the arteries institutions such as governments and corporations rely on in order to sustain themselves. Locating these arteries allows us to devise strategies that do create leverage. This is one reason that things such as boycotts have been able to produce real political differences, because they understand the language that autopoietic systems such as corporations speak (money/profit), and intervene at that site. It is also the reason that I suggested that it might be more effective to protest on highways and at ports, shutting them down, because businesses require these arteries to transport their goods and produce their profits. In the case of finance capital, some change might be able to produce if we could form collectives large enough that vowed not to pay back student loans, credit card debt, house mortgages, etc.
These are just some suggestions, and they are suggestions that come with danger. As my friend Rachel and I have been discussing in email, the worry is that these strategies carry the danger of increasing State power (where the State is understood as both governments and corporations). This intensification of State power can occur in two ways: First, through forms of civil disobedience such as the ones suggested here, it might become possible for States to more easily enact repressive laws and forms of law enforcement that make it even more difficult to target contemporary capital. We saw something like this following 9-11, where surveillance intensified making it more difficult to resist. It scares the daylights out of me just writing posts discussing these things for precisely this reason. Will I end up at Gitmo or have all my property seized because I’m deemed a terrorist threat? Second, the hardships that shutting down arteries in the system of distribution might cause in the lives of ordinary people might very well generate reactionary collectives more sympathetic corporations and to repressive laws and forms of enforcement by governments, than to emancipatory struggles against these entities. The question is one of how to avoid these negative feedback loops. I wish I had the answers. All I know is that I don’t see much in contemporary political thought that is even seriously posing the questions.