THREE CRISES: Thirties – Seventies – Now is a journey through history and into the present.
Here, just a few words about how this site came to be and what it can be used for.
Life stories are both generational and historical. I was born in San Francisco in 1959, which means I experienced the declining phase of Fordism and the entire arc of what we now call Neoliberalism. In 1990, after the Reagan era and before the dotcom boom erupted, I left California to settle in France, where I began working with artists, political activists and social theorists. In the seminars and on the streets, the keyword was “the globalization of capital.” Thousands, perhaps millions of people were trying to figure out the hidden rules of a supposedly borderless world.
In the late Nineties the Internet came within the reach of ordinary people, opening up new forms of access to knowledge and the possibility of new solidarities. Between bursts of political activity and attempts to invent a cultural critique for the networked era, I started raiding the academic disciplines for analytical frameworks to grasp how we had reached a state of quasi-permanent crisis, inextricably economic, social, geopolitical and ecological. In those years I focused very much on the left political culture of Europe, in a wide range from communism to anarchism. But gradually another story crept up from the past, pulling me back to a previous existence. I began realizing how in the course of the 20th century US society had overstepped its bounds, transformed the world and set the stage for its own dissolution.
The world revolution of 1968 and the metamorphosis of the global political economy in the Seventies became a touchstone for my theoretical essays on social change, including the ones republished here (“The Flexible Personality,” “Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies,” “Do Containers Dream of Electric People?” and “Information’s Metropolis”). Such a far-reaching historical shift could only be approached through the treatment of multiple aspects: art, literature and philosophy, of course, but also economics, geography, sociology, psychology and the history of science and technology… If you wanted to analyze the new order that emerged from the Eighties onward, it was urgent to grasp how the old one had broken down in the previous decade. That was how the Italian autonomists had assembled their highly influential theories of Post-Fordism and immaterial labor, notably in the French journal Multitudes that I joined in 2003. Yet it wouldn’t be long before those breaks of the Seventies were supplanted by new ones. You could feel it coming. After fall 2008, I was certain we were in for a sweeping transformation of the world system.
I wanted to go through that process in my country of birth, while continuing to dialogue with people around the planet. Therefore I moved from Paris to Chicago and started making closer contacts in Latin America, while keeping up with the latest political and artistic developments in Europe and to some extent, in Asia. After a particularly stimulating online exchange with the Viennese cultural critic Armin Medosch in 2009, the two of us launched the research project Technopolitics, on which much of the analysis here is based. We aimed to study the emergence, consolidation and dissolution of “technopolitical paradigms” over periods of forty to fifty years, each punctuated by a major crisis. That periodization forms the backbone of this website.
Soon afterwards I began organizing a kind of itinerant seminar under various names, in the attempt to find a narration for moving times. The opening session of the self-organized educational project “Three Crises” was held at Mess Hall in Chicago on September 17, 2011 – which as it happened was the day the Occupiers began moving in on Wall Street. A similar program was carried out with the Autonomous University of Occupy Berlin in 2012, and the following year I was able to take the work into the Spanish language at a major university in Mexico City, the UNAM. Since then I’ve continued to write, dialogue and teach about the history and present reality of the Thirties, the Seventies and Now.
The story told here includes an introduction (“So it begins…”) and a pair of theoretical overviews (“Ten Postulates for Technopolitics” and “Crisis Theory for Complex Societies”). After establishing the frame we dive straight into the institutional breakdown of US society in the Thirties and the subsequent consolidation of the postwar American hegemony in the international sphere, through the process that Gramsci termed “passive revolution.” This happens when social classes are not able to achieve their own intrinsic potentials, but instead accept production regimes and forms of leadership offered from outside. Modernism, in all the senses of the word, came to its highest fruition in this period, along with a deeply hierarchical form of governance that I call “Liberal Empire” (but which could also more simply be called “neocolonialism”). By focusing on the complex web of relations between US minorities and Third World liberation movements in 1968 I try to show how grassroots solidarities across borders began laying the basis for a global civil society. That process is inseparable from the implosion of Liberal Empire and the return home of its global contradictions, through a vast multiplication of identities and subject-positions, not only in the US but around the world.
How did the capitalist elites absorb their setbacks and defeats in the Sixties and Seventies, in order to piece together an original hegemonic order, quite distinct from the older formulas of power? “Meet the Reactionaries” and “The Flexible Personality” use different methods (historical and theoretial) to explore the struggle around the “new class” of organic intellectuals that had arisen from the modernizing institutions of the welfare state. The capacities and demands of this diverse stratum of the population gave rise to new forms of national political culture, even as businesses and civil societies were becoming embroiled in constant global negotiation. Society became more complex at every level – a transformation directly reflected in multiculturalism, the new international division of labor and the wildly swinging values of global currencies. After the Reagan-Thatcher era had established the conditions, we experienced a tremendous capitalist growth wave: the dot-com boom, which introduced the personal computer, cabled the planet and brought informationalism to the palm of your hand in the form of the cell phone. The US bid to restore hegemony through Trilateral bargaining with Western Europe and East Asia led first just to globalization and the infamous “Washington Consensus,” and then to the dissolution of any coherent world order. That’s what we’re witnessing now, with the decline of the American capacity to structure world affairs, the quasi-collapse of the EU and the tumultuous rise of China.
Global supply chains and financial derivatives are the twin backbones of the present world economy. The genealogies of these core functions are explored in “Do Containers Dream of Electric People?” and “Information’s Metropolis.” The question is what will the long crisis do to these two mainstays of the neoliberal order? Will they simply be refined and extended, producing a hardened Neoliberalism 2.0 that delivers the goods for a few, against a background of deepening inequality? Will a new technolopolitical paradigm be founded instead, changing the rules of the game and bringing wider prosperity in the bargain? Or will an ecologial respect for planetary boundaries mandate a fundamental shift in the current political economy? The last group of texts, and indeed the whole site, tries to formulate and at least partially answer those questions.
What is all this good for? The texts can simply be read as such, in order or in disorder. Certain pages included associated pdf documents, which I use in classes and workshops and you can use as you like. Some of them contain a lot of information (but beware, the quotes have often been shortened to fit the page, so find the originals). The work can be freely appropriated, you can improve on it, detourne it or remix it – just sign your own name and if you like, indicate your sources. Inspired by the copyleft movement, I would like to see this material as part of other creations.
The eminent use of these texts is to spark learning processes and dialogues about the present, so as to be able to change the course of what we analyze. Through dialogue, the biases of someone born in a particular place and time can be overcome, and a more adequate understanding can be woven. What’s really called for is a dialectical synthesis, which would account for the ways that multiple forms of contestation in locales across the world both condition the action of the dominant forces and ultimately undermine them and render them obsolete. To that end I can be persuaded to do quite a lot of things, like exchange letters, meet people, write texts, give and participate in seminars, collaborate on further projects… If all goes well, this will eventually give rise to an online curriculum and perhaps an interactive co-production, fulfilling the initial model of the seminar that was held at Mess Hall in Chicago with substantial participation from a core group of around fifteen people.
Today, in January 2015, the site is unfinished, the texts themselves are in a fluctuating state of rewriting and everything about this world picture remains to be finalized. Perhaps when you read it all that has changed, everything’s in its place, the world has recovered its beat and the Apocalypse is no longer staring over our shoulders. Well, here’s to a simpler future! I hope not to have been right about a lot of things, but the mainline trends are fairly clear. The difficult question is how to make some positive contribution to intractable processes of social and ecological change, whose determinants no one can individually master.
An inquiry that has developed over a decade entails lots of mutual aid and therefore lots of gratitude. My first thanks go to Armin Medosch and the Technopolitics group in Vienna, and the second, to the members of the Multitudes journal in the period 2003-2008, who taught me how to mix art, philosophy and the social sciences. For experimental pedagogy and group process, I owe much to the organizers and collaborators of Mess Hall in Chicago, 16 Beaver Group in New York, the Autonomous University of Occupy Berlin and also Jean-François Chevrier’s seminar at the School of Fine Arts in Paris, way back in the mid-Nineties. Helena Chávez and Cuauhtemoc Medina of the UNAM in Mexico City allowed me to bring the seminar back to one of its departure points, a warm and memorable experience. Every artist whose work I have ever written about remains vibrant in this project, thank you. Innumerable electronic dialogues have also shaped this work, especially Nettime. Streets full of radicals are a continuing inspiration, let’s do it again! So are the new worlds of peer-to-peer collaboration, permaculture and locally networked solidarity. My intimate friends know who they are and how much they mean to me.
Writing about the past and the future is just another way of focusing on today. Let’s make it through to a better world on the far side of this historical crisis.