Archives for posts with tag: Capitalism

And I’m back. We’ll see for how long this time.

Los 'indignados' protesting in Barcelona

Al Jazeera ran this article yesterday in which Santiago Zabala argues that being a communist in modern society is possible only because of the failure of the Bolshevik programme. A point I would agree with, however the claim that it is a necessary position is, to my mind, quite shaky. What I think is most important here, and seems likely it represents some background context, which the author mistakenly assumes is mutually held, is that the Revolutionary Act of Soviet communism (that is, Lenin’s revolution), precisely is an act in the sense that it was an impossible performance which, through its having been carried out, altered the very definition of what was possible. This is to say, being a communist is of course not “necessary given the existential threats posed by capitalism.” Rather this only means that one should challenge the hegemonic hold of capitalism over society, and further, even articulating such a problem is, by its very nature, to claim a counter-hegemonic discourse. The existential threats which are posed are not only invisible from within the hegemonic discourse, they constitute the very kernel of the Real, that is, they are the internal negative bounding of hegemony.

Zabala then proceeds to argue that, “Instead of pursuing once again the contest against capitalism for unfettered development, weak communism can now embrace the cause of economic degrowth, social distribution and dialogic education as an effective alternative to the inequity that global capitalism has submitted us to.” This call to throw away the positive proscriptions of the communist project, in order to take up the claims of anarchism and deconstructionism is an obvious expansion of the model of Marxism. In fact it represents a bloating of communism which expands its claims until the ever larger number of demands inscribed within the signifier ‘communism’ causes it to become an empty signifier that is less and less able to represent the particular claims of Marxism. Ultimately this model means abandoning the Marxist project in order to hold out the signifier communism as that which would represent the perceived lack of fullness of society. The very idea of communism is abandoned in order to represent a counter-hegemonic discourse of expanded inclusion, built upon the idea of social equality. This new signifier ‘communism’ no longer “aspire[s] to construct another Soviet Union,” because it has shed its proscriptive project and abandoned its material aims. It has embraced the Lacanian (r)evolution of Freud by abandoning material condition for psychic power.



The deliberative democracy project, in which politics can be governed by rational decision making and the process of public deliberation can be guaranteed to have reasonable outcomes, makes sense only when conditions of ideal discourse prevail. These conditions, however, imply the removal of power relations from discourse; or in other words, they assume that ideal speech situations exist in which discourse is driven communicatively, rather than strategically; a position which must be rejected. One must understand that language use itself is colonized by power. The goal of greater inclusivity through discourse fails to stand up in the face of the undermining of inclusivity by the use of language. What is at stake in the claim that politics is unnecessarily adversarial is the denial of the central role of conflict in politics and collective identity formation. This is the work the concept of hegemony does, as the point of convergence and collapse between objectivity and power. The hegemony of a depoliticized public discourse, that of ‘third way’ politics is that there are correct answers to be had, which politicians are unwilling to take for whatever reason. This is rubbish, the answers in reality become clear only in retrospect ( argues for a similar point, but without being willing to take the final step the argument entails, perhaps the government is not broken, but the point is that social conflict such as #occupywallstreet shows that the polity is not broken. Such movements are properly agonistic rather than adversarial, they still seek to include other members of the polity, unlike an adversarial movement such as the tea party which seeks to expel members from the polity.) And then only because they are now historically imperative. This concept mirrors Foucault’s description of human history:

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and thus proceeds from domination to domination… Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose… [I]nterpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game. (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews)

All language, and by extension politics, is warfare by other means.

Without the presence of the Lacanian master signifier, the signifier of symbolic authority founded only on itself, language has no meaning. The introduction of the master signifier to discourse distorts the symbolic field by introducing the intrinsic violence of language, which is generated by clashes over what constitutes appropriate language use, and who can use it, without which the entire symbolic field would evaporate. Similarly, the same violence is perpetrated, for example when some events are deemed worthy of public attention while others are marginalized through a refusal to acknowledge them. However, if the violent, authoritarian, master-signifier were removed from the symbolic field, then the field itself would vanish.

One must acknowledge the existence of power relations and the desire to alter how power is allocated, but perhaps more importantly one must renounce the illusion that we can ever be completely free from power. The complete dissolution of all power is a naive goal, one must instead see that power is constitutive of human relations and what is contingent is how it is used and by whom it is held. Of course protestors at #occupywallstreet will hold different goals, we already understand that every consensus is merely the temporary result of a provisional hegemony, that is, nothing more than a stabilization of power in the moment which can just as easily fracture the next. When establishment groups joined the protest after 2 weeks what effect can be expected? Will this lead to increased resolve, will the strategic rationality of large organizations give power to the movement, or will it undermine the truly radical potential? These mainstream groups joining the protest provide legitimacy but the ability to speak always already represents recourse to systems of power that give one the authority to speak, and to require the other to listen. By gaining legitimacy in this way the movement gives up part of its status as “outside” the order. To this point, many claims are made that the protestors are just children with nothing better to do, or only the unemployed; but isn’t it obvious that those are exactly the people who capitalism has most let down. The future that past generations have been able to count on is not available to today’s youth, and of course the high rate of unemployment is a symptom of the economic situation. If these are not the voices we should hear, the voices of those most affected, then who should we turn to.

The question is if such a political move is capable of building up a broad coalition of support without diluting its message too far. Will’s recent post brilliantly argues that the true meaning of the protest can be read off from its many messages, that is a disillusionment with the capitalist hegemony. One can read the endless interrogations by commenters online about how the protest is unguided and ask how can they not see the common theme, the solution which is already evident in the protest, but such a question comes about only after making the subjective determination as the one’s role. If one has already committed themselves to such a change then the question is obvious, but for one who still holds onto the ideological blinders of the prevailing hegemony how can such a solution ever appear ready-at-hand? Such a solution is already part of the counter-hegemony (that is a new hegemony, not a naive anti-hegemonic stance).

EDIT: Another interesting post by Daniel Drezner, at Foreign Policy, which moves in a similar manner to my argument, went up several hours after this post went live, for more check it out.

¨Capitalism Hits The Fan¨ is a 2008 video-lecture by UMass economist Richard Wolff at the New School in NYC. It’s a very clear summary of the history of capitalism that provides an excellent context for understanding and responding to today’s crisis.

Scrabble was created all the way back in 1938; Bananagrams was created very recently, in 2006.

I assume Scrabble is familiar to most people reading this blog. If it’s unfamiliar to you, then please click here (just don’t get distracted for too long!). Here’s an explanation of Bananagrams. Imagine a Scrabble game, except without a board. Players unzip a cloth ‘banana’ that holds the tiles. Then, if it’s four people playing the game, they each get 21 of the tiles, face down. Someone says ‘split,’ and everyone flips over their tiles. Each player arranges his or her own puzzle, following the basic Scrabble rules, except that you can break apart and reorganize your puzzle (which you have to be willing to do if you want to use your tiles quickly enough to win). When a player uses all of his or her tiles to form a complete puzzle, the player says ‘peel!’ and every player, including the one who said ‘peel’ takes one tile from the center of the game space. If you’re fed up with a difficult letter, then you can say ‘dump,’ place the letter back in the center pile and take three new letters. The game is over when someone says ‘peel’ and there aren’t enough letters remaining for every player to take another one. At that time, the person who said ‘peel’ is the winner, and says ‘BANANAS!’ Of course, the best and easiest way to get something out of what I’ve written below is to play the game!

Contrary to what might be expected, using your letters the quickest doesn’t offer a big advantage, because you’re not rewarded for it – you take on a kind of debt, a new tile that has to be dealt with; and the other players will also draw more letters, giving them an opportunity to make new words, sometimes more quickly than you can yourself. The only time using all your letters becomes truly advantageous is when you can call ‘peel’ multiple times in quick succession, so that your opponents can’t respond quickly enough and are left with a massive number of new tiles (debt) to deal with.

So, the paradoxical goal of Bananagrams is to complete your puzzle as fast as possible while simultaneously depleting the resources you need to make more puzzles.

Here’s my main point, argued for in the rest of the post: There is a remarkable correspondence between the structure of the somewhat comical, maniacal race to finish a game of Bananagrams and today’s capitalist marketplace. Scrabble, on the other hand, represents the capitalist marketplace of the past.

Capitalism depends upon the bets it makes on the future; it borrows from the future (in the form of capital) in order to fund what happens now. Similarly, every time Bananagrams players take tiles from the center of the game space, they are ‘betting’ that the risk of taking the tiles (depleting resources and thus hastening the end of the game) is worth the potential reward of winning the game. In a sense, the players are all given a 21-tile ‘loan’ at the beginning of the game, which they have to repay by the end, and, along the way, hope to make a ‘profit,’ i.e., ‘earn’ one new tile every time they complete a puzzle – though the profit of the one additional tile is really more like a debt, as I said above, since you have to make sure to use it wisely. Players then reinvest that profit into building more and more intricate puzzles. They even purposefully take ‘losses’ (dumping one tile in exchange for three new ones) in hopes of getting the tiles they need to complete a puzzle.

The amount of risk varies depending on when the tiles are drawn. Risk is very slight at the beginning of the game, because there are plenty of tiles to choose from and there’s plenty of time to make a puzzle – that is, to make a ‘return’ on the ‘investment’ of tiles. But risk increases closer to the end of the game, since both time and tiles are in short supply. Toward the end of the game, players start moving their tiles around frantically, trying to finish their puzzles as quickly as possible, so that they’re not caught with an incomplete puzzle and someone else calling ‘peel!’ Of course, it’s ironic that the tendency is to speed up toward the end of the game, since the quicker you finish your puzzle, the quicker the resources (time and tiles) are depleted; it’s an exponential race toward the finish. This can make Bananagrams a very exciting, fun, and even stressful, game.

I’ve charted a comparison of the two games, Scrabble and Bananagrams, in the lists below. Afterward I’m going to use the same lists again, describing how each of these features is analogous to the operation of the capitalist marketplace in two different historical times.

Some features of Scrabble (made 1938):

  1. Solid territory: can’t move pieces once they’re placed.
  2. Centralized control: everyone uses the same board, players take turns.
  3. Solid victories: once ‘double-letter score’ or ‘triple-world score’ tiles are ‘conquered,’ ‘ownership’ – and profit, i.e., the extra points – stays with the same player.
  4. Equality of resource distribution; little risk: everyone allotted the same number of tiles at beginning of game, and no risk in using them, since everyone keeps the same number the whole time – there’s no ‘loss’ or ‘gain’ of tiles, no potential for getting behind or ahead.
  5. Clear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: players must wait for other players to finish before going again.

Some features of Bananagrams (made 2006):

  1. Fluid territory: pieces frequently moved, sometimes whole puzzles rearranged.
  2. Decentralized control: each player uses own board; no set schedule for play.
  3. Fluid victories: no telling whether your call to ‘peel’ will make it harder or easier for your opponents to finish their puzzles; you could be winning by a landslide up until the last 20 seconds of the game, and then lose to someone who managed to rearrange their entire puzzle in less than a minute.
  4. Inequality of resource distribution; high risk: each player may have either too few or too many tiles, since the only guarantee is an equal starting number of tiles (a bit like America – the call is for ‘equal opportunity,’ not equal results); dumping a tile involves a risk/reward decision, as does the choice to play as quickly/efficiently as possible, since ‘peeling’ involves taking on debt and giving other players new tiles.
  5. Unclear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: players have to assume that the other players are competitive and making steady progress, or else they risk falling behind; but there’s no telling if that’s actually correct; there’s no standard ‘your turn, my turn’ structure, so everyone operates on assumptions/guesses about other players’ behavior, making the player’s own strategy in constant flux, thus increasing the burden of doubt/anxiety about the strategy, a burden which, in Scrabble, was take care of by the turn-taking rule.

Now to the main point. These same differences can be used to illustrate the historical shift from a ‘secure’ working life to one in which there is no certainty, in which employers can ‘fire at will,’ and everything is in constant transition. Let’s look at this by using economic terms to describe the capitalist market arrangement corresponding to each of the two games.

Old-school work environment (= Scrabble market arrangement):

  1. Solid territory: long-term job security.
  2. Centralized control: workers have to invest heavily in the success of the company, since they know they’re going to be working there for a very long time; thus they’re all highly dependent on one another, and dependent on the company at large; they’re full-time employees with union contracts.
  3. Solid victories: regular, set income (since not at risk of lay-off, which is a fairly recent phenomenon, only coming about in the 1980s, and contracts guarantee set wage); predictable earnings and steady investments lead to relative financial security.
  4. Equality of resource distribution; little risk: large middle class, wealth distribution more equitable, and consistent and predictable gains/losses in the stock market; anybody with a little money to invest can earn a lot.
  5. Clear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: people work 9-5 (or less, in France), with clear and stable job roles that the company establishes for them; they clock in and out without having to worry about ‘getting ahead’ over the weekend or at night, spending time off the clock checking work-related e-mails and such.

New-school work environment (= Bananagrams market arrangement):

  1. Fluid territory: very little, if any, job security; ‘free agents;’ most contracts ‘fire-at-will.’
  2. Decentralized control: workers are ‘independent’ entrepreneurs or contractors and consultants, often part-time with little investment in company success, almost always no union representation, no pension, no benefits, competing for control of as much of the pie as possible, since there is nothing governing who gets what share except the players themselves – a libertarian’s paradise.
  3. Fluid victories: unreliable earnings, as a result of easy loss of job and the wild fluctuations of other sources of income, like stocks; thus major financial insecurity; fortunes won and lost easily; even those who save and invest ‘wisely’ aren’t assured of anything.
  4. Inequality of resource distribution; high risk: nothing protecting the middle class and the working class, since decentralization of the work place and less gov’t regulation of corporations leads to the problems of #s 1-3.
  5. Unclear distribution of roles, time/energy, turn-taking: no clear distinction between work/play, since work travels home with the worker, worker maintains correspondence all hours using e-mail, smart phone, etc.; with job insecurity and decentralized control of the work place, it’s up to the workers to define their value to the company, vs. the other way around — workers have to define their own roles (there is no social ‘we’ to arrange and distribute responsibilities, since there aren’t stable organizations, just people working together on a project-basis); then they take their self-divined role (think of the New Age search for the ‘true’ self) and ‘sell’ it to groups who might need their services; everyone is essence becomes an entrepreneur/freelancer, ‘freed’ from the restrictions of a unionized, long-term job, let loose from the structure/order that kind of work provided. Thus everyone has to worry that they might not be doing enough to ensure their own success, might not be making the grade, since there is no organization to set clear requirements and to guarantee a reward for a set amount of work.

Here’s the simplest message to take away from the Bananagrams way of doing things: we pay, individually and as a society, for the purported benefits of a fluid marketplace with an immeasurable increase in anxiety.

The race to finish a game of Bananagrams (comical because of its paradoxical nature) echoes the basic nature of the capitalist marketplace, which is essentially a race to accumulate shares of the (potential/debt-based) wealth from the same virtual store. You might therefore be tempted to ask a Bananagrams player and a capitalist the same question: what is it all for?

First, by way of introduction I’d like to thank Will for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I’ve never tried this before, but I hope I can provide content as interesting and valuable as he has. Now, on to the show.

I subscribe to the idea that the rise of zombie related horror in recent times is reflective of the idea that we, as a culture, see the mindless masses as terrifying. The zombie is bent on consumption at all costs; incapable of higher level functions of reflection or tactics or what have you, the zombie mindlessly shambles through its unlife as a parasite incapable of production. With hits such as the Left 4 Dead series and, particularly relevant for my point here, World War Z, the rise of zombies in popular culture was impressive.

Now let me draw your attention to a parallel movement, that of robots. Here we see, for example, the Portal series, and the recently released Robopocalypse. The NPR review draws the quite obvious parallel to World War Z, and I assure you that anyone who has read both will have been struck by the similar narrative style. In each case the end of the civilization as we know it is told from a number of vantage points in a briefing style after the fact.

The interesting reversal here is obvious. We move from the fear of the mindless consuming masses to fear of the superintelligent, hyper-logical robot. The question we have to ask ourselves is what does this tell us about ourselves. The ever increasing production of new technologies certainly gives us a way to avoid becoming “like the zombie,” our ability to create sets us apart from that fear, but will we be able to control what we create.

To me it raises the question of the environmental crisis, a topic I admit I know less about than I could. But it seems to come down to a fundamental question, and that is do we go back and try to mitigate the damage to the environment we have already caused, or do we press ahead hoping that technology can truly save us from itself?

Or, another example, the economic crisis. Do we try to mitigate disaster by re-regulating the economy, or do we press forward with deregulation? The question in both cases ultimately revolves around the issue of whether we can find a new way of doing things which will save us from ourselves. How does/should the Left respond to such a crisis? Does one demand a return to the communist or social democratic critique of capital? Or does one adopt the radical center approach of a ‘third-way’ politics?

The Zombie/Robot dichotomy is about who we are and how we deal with crisis. But for those who uncritically drive forward or pull back we will eventually find a problem we can’t solve. We can’t afford to believe that philosophy is a luxury item.