Toward a new paradigm?

Live Your Models

Self-orientation and social form


Throughout the twentieth century and up to today, art has been a prodigious creator of models. Models of the self, models of history, models of society and technology and communication, models of the interactions between all these. Now is the time to live your models.

Once every forty to fifty years, the core capitalist economies are gripped by a structural crisis with repercussions on the entire world. Think about the 1970s, or in a more dramatic way, the 1930s. Look back further and you find another long recessionary period culminating in the early 1890s, then still another leading up to the turmoil of 1848. Clearly the historical periods in question are wildly different. But what’s similar about such crises is that they last a decade or more, they are not just economic and they end with profound shifts in the social order.

As I write in 2016, global capitalism is still embroiled in the crisis that began in the real-estate markets eight years before. But the shape of possible resolutions can now be seen. Which one becomes reality is vitally important. If the dominant historical pattern takes fresh life, it will give rise to an expansive techno-economic paradigm and what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call a “new spirit of capitalism” – yet another one, superseding neoliberalism. Everyone, regardless of their geographic location or political orientation, should take pause before contributing to such a “new spirit.” The artistic question is: How do you model the process of change? The existential question is: What do you want from it?

Fifteen years ago, I was among those who offered a critical analysis of the ways that the rebels of the last structural crisis – the generation of 1968 – had subsequently adapted, both socially and psychologically, to the political economy of neoliberalism. This was part of a larger intellectual and aesthetic program, the cognitive mapping of financial globalization. To develop a critical model of the postmodern self I coined a deliberately ambiguous term: the flexible personality. Here’s the core idea: “The word ‘flexible’ alludes directly to the current economic system, with its casual labor contracts, its just-in-time production, its informational products and its absolute dependence on virtual currency circulating in the financial sphere. But it also refers to an entire set of very positive images, spontaneity, creativity, cooperativity, mobility, peer relations, appreciation of difference, openness to present experience.” Like Boltanski and Chiapello, I described these positive images from the Sixties and Seventies as a disorienting force, acting to cover and mask the coercive elements of the neoliberal order. Unlike Boltanski and Chiapello, I insisted that there was no going back from the turning-point of 1968. The welfare state had reached its limits, society had to change. That’s where the ambiguities lie. On my view, the radical experiments of the Sixties and Seventies were not misguided, yet they were partially absorbed into the new hegemony of neoliberalism. That’s why you have to be careful what you wish for. Today it’s time for more rebellion, society has to change again. This time, the absorption of radical experiments will be our direct responsibility.

A structural crisis means that everything changes. Right now, as neoliberal principles are pushed to their logical conclusions, what’s happening is that everything “liberal” about the former social order is disappearing. Welfare-state liberalities in the areas of housing, education, culture, unemployment insurance and retirement have been under continuous attack over the last thirty years, and today in the majority of countries it seems that only socialized health care will survive. Civil liberties, which were the great justification of the Former West during the Cold War, and which were so fervently exalted after the fall of the Former East, are everywhere being curtailed as the long-predicted “society of control” becomes a reality. Finally, the liberal free-trade regime itself, the cornerstone of American policy since 1945, is now seriously threatened by the massive deficits of many countries, by the massive trade surpluses of China and Germany, and by the rush of all players to pursue export-oriented strategies at the expense of their neighbors. For the people, a crisis is measured by the lack of social welfare and civil liberties. For capital, a crisis is measured by the inability to manage a liberal free-trade regime.

From a popular viewpoint, the benefits of liberal societies are waning in the face of three fundamental challenges to the 20th century form of democracy. The first is that economic growth no longer produces employment. The double punch of automation and global supply chains has decimated the industrial working classes without in any way abolishing work, and computer algorithms combined with speech-recognition technologies are doing the same for the middle-class professions. What’s left is meaningless toil, police repression of the poor, and super-profits for the financiers. The second fundamental challenge is the profusion of armed conflict, and the waves of refugees that flow from it. The breakdown of the US-led security system after the failed wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the desperation of Russia since 2008, has brought battle and its consequences right up to the gateways of the European Union. Similarly, the collapse of Mexico, Honduras and other Latin American countries is overwhelming US borders, while the partial takeover of the Mexican state by narco cartels creates a paramilitary threat comparable to that of the Islamic State. And no one knows whether the current assertions of Chinese naval power in international waters will ultimately lead to outright war in Asia. But the third fundamental challenge is the harshest: climate change. The growing intensity of storms, droughts, floods and fires opens a new chapter in human history. Those of us involved with art and philosophy have to face the realization that technological modernity and the economic emancipation of billions of human beings have been bound up with a basic mistake, which is the structural reliance of industrial civilization on fossil fuels and poisonous chemicals. The problem is fundamental, because the modernist “solution” to basic injustices and inequalities always involved the exploitation of non-human energies. So-called postmodernism never dealt with this problem, but lingered instead in its cultural disorientation. So how to imagine a way forward? How to embark on a long journey when the path remains invisible?

From capital’s viewpoint, no grand strategy to address the triple crisis has emerged – but one undoubtedly will, and then they’ll invest. Major crises end when a new political order unleashes an investment wave, as we know from the experience of Fordism after WWII, and from the more recent surge of Neoliberalism after the first Gulf War. Previous experience suggests that vanguard social movements, forged in the depression, can make an impact on the next upswing. That’s what I showed with “The Flexible Personality.” To be significant today, such movements have to be populist, but they also have to be radically new. They have to respond to present and future conditions, drawing on whatever is ready to hand, but avoiding the inertial force of past compromises and sterile cooptations. Over the course of the next decade, such movements will have to solve the practical problems of complex societies, and not simply provide an aesthetic mask over a fresh economic expansion. It’s obvious that for those left without employment, stranded by natural disasters, exposed to the perils of war or faced with dramatic influxes of refugees, the old mantras of individual merit, intense competition and smart stock-market bets are not going to be relevant. Yet nor is there any chance to ressurect the Fordist strategy of the 1950s and ‘60s, which consisted in redistributing the profits gained through the exploitation of workers at home and the imposition of violence abroad. That’s what the American radicals of 1968 finally recognized as “the welfare-warfare state.” In a world of unified flows and a single atmospheric system, the hypocrisy of calling on capitalist surplus to repair just your part of what it damages has become unbearable.

In that light, the struggle against precarity by campaigns for a guaranteed minimum income appears as a foreshortened utopia. What’s missing from this latter-day welfare-state claim is an understanding of how to build institutional frames for local productivity, social solidarity and ecological resilience – the three beacons on the dark horizon of the triple crisis. Precisely because those beacons are not yet visible amidst the gloom, I’m going to propose, paradoxical as it may seem, that the vanguards of the today have no choice except to actually deepen the present crisis and refuse the invocations of those who press for its rapid resolution. By “deepening the crisis” I do not mean the old ultra-leftist tactic of engaging in violent actions designed to increase social tensions or destabilize power. Instead I’m talking about durably internalizing that which is widely shared during brief moments of social disarray: which is the perception that capitalism is the crisis. Effective vanguards can only arise from a powerful rejection of the societies they live in.

With that in mind I’d like to offer a quote from the American theorist James O’Connor, who lived through the turmoil of the 1970s and understood it as a transformational process. A decade later he wrote these lines:

We know that capital is racing madly through the present; it has raced headlong into a crisis. It attempts to reduce its turnover time compulsively and obsessively. Modernization of production, internationalization of production and a bloated debt structure are three sides of a single process. Whole cities and communities are thrown away in the race to defend and expand profits. “Growth coalitions” multiply like cancer cells, killing the normal cells of family, religion, tradition. The frenzy of accumulation; the fear that it will come to an end in a huge crash or an environmental or military catastrophe; the unbelievable excesses of late capitalism worldwide – these bear witness to the obsessive-compulsive quality of the inner soul of capital. If we could become its inner eye, if we could transport ourselves into its inner soul, if we could hear the relentless beat of accumulation, we could experience as well as know the madness of this obsessiveness – this world where capital and money are a religious and aesthetic experience, and where power is a moral category. When we examine ourselves, we find capital within our own souls. We too rush through the present; we race for some victory–or toward some unknown destination; we are governed by unlimited desire; we stumble and fall from identity into the abyss. We create our own personal crisis, as capital creates its own crisis.

What does it mean, to create your own crisis? Here I have to shift from abstract theory to something very personal and localized: self-orientation. I want to go deeper into the morass of contemporary American class and race relations, to explore some possibilities of social transformation.

The Two Republics of White Flight

I wasn’t born in Chicago which I now call home, and it took me years to find my bearings in the city. The suburbs remain very difficult for me. I get lost in those places. But maybe one needs to get lost more often in one’s home city. That way you find out who else is living there.

Since the Great Fire of 1873, the core city of Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan has been surrounded by an expanding crown of westward-stretching suburbs. A whole social world has grown up in what used to be the hinterland. This edgeward drift accelerated when industrial congestion reached threatening proportions in the early twentieth century. By the 1950s, the elites who controlled the city’s destiny lived outside its borders, to the northwest, in mansions close to the lake shore and in the verdant river valleys. There lies the true north of power in this urban system.

More massively throughout the western and southern suburbs, the detached home with double garage served as the basic platform of Fordist consumption. As David Harvey wrote in Consciousness and the Urban Condition, “A worker mortgaged up to the hilt is, for the most part, a pillar of social stability, and schemes to promote homeownership within the working class have long recognized this basic fact.” The strictures of the home mortgage contract served to stabilize the rebellious populations of industrial workers whose inner-city concentrations had furnished the key element in the progressive coalition of Roosevelt’s New Deal. When that coalition broke apart along racial lines – through the cycle of urban riots that culminated after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 – the movement to the suburbs accelerated. “White Flight” names the reactionary formation constituting the social base of the neoconservative power structure that emerged under Nixon, then consolidated all the way through the 2000s.

I should tell you that I come from the California suburbs of the 1960s. I was born with the two-car garage. That’s what I’ve fled all my life – escaping to the historical cities of Europe, wandering the urban worlds of Latin America and Asia, then finally returning to an old industrial city in the US. And it’s not just me. Generations have escaped in this way. There are not just one, but two republics of white flight.

Before we get to the one I love, let’s see how the first republic works. What struck me, when I took the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway to a middle-class paradise called Naperville, is the sheer quantity of construction going on. Naperville is what the geographer Joel Garreau called Edge City. Along the freeway corridor, a Miesian layer of corporate headquarters from the 1980s has been overtaken by newer mirrored buildings embodying the two phases of the computer boom, from the 1990s dot-com surge to the mid-2000s roll-out of the mass-surveillance industries. The data-gathering corporation Acxiom has a building here, as does Alcatel-Lucent and Tellabs. In this corridor one sees many private educational facilities, which call themselves universities although they are really business training centers. Big-box stores – WalMart, Target, etc. – line the avenues between the gated suburban developments, which are still springing up in vast proliferating tracts. But the suburban areas are also dotted with shiny, glass-skinned mega-churches, complete with associated schools and social services. They are built in styles similar to the corporate architecture of the freeway corridor. The church-goers in their overgrown sport utility vehicles are the natural constituency of the tightly integrated ruling class that Julian Assange calls “Family America.” Edge City, the parallel world that the neocons built since 1980, is the ideal-type of neoliberal social form. September 11 cemented all its characteristics into an enduring ideology. The First Republic of White Flight believes in its own sprawling future.

By chance I met a friendly boat mechanic who led a Boy Scout troop and wore an eagle-emblazoned Never Forget tee-shirt. He gave me a window to the ways in which Family America imagines the next century. It will be prosperous, proactive, religious and cautiously optimistic. You do not see doubt, satire, disbelief or existential anxiety inscribed into this landscape. What you do see, or rather feel coming out of the cracks, is overwhelming denial: the denial of climate change, of imperial blowback, of unsustainable private debt, of dependency on low-wage immigrant service workers, and perhaps closest to home, the denial of the inexorably rising middle-class unemployment brought on by the computerized industries that so many of these people work for. It’s like a boiling cauldron in a deep freeze. Whenever this republic is threatened, as it was after September 11, another burst of G.W. Bush-style American fascism will not be long in coming.

Solid Air

So what about the second republic? Already in the Fifties, American bohemians were defecting en masse from what Henry Miller called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. They left on a long period of wandering, through dissent, draft-dodging, drugs, sexual experimentation, etc. But eventually they had to settle down. The Second Republic of White Flight was launched by the “urban pioneers” of the Seventies. Today we’re talking about a full-scale resettlement of the old industrial cores by the middle classes, in the form of young urban professionals who no longer want to suffer endless traffic jams and boring summer nights by the pool. The reconquest of downtown Chicago was brought to a conclusion in the 2000s by the second Mayor Daley. His administration beautified the downtown Loop and installed the new brand image of the city, an artwork in form of a narcissistic fun-house mirror, known as “Cloud Gate,” or more familiarly, “the Bean.” There is much to say about the massive expropriation of low-income neighborhoods in the wake of the real-estate crisis. But the critique of gentrification should not cut off all access to a generational history. An intimate history of the “near past” is the only way to go deeply into the ambiguity of social relations.

In its most positive light, the flight from the suburbs can be understood as the attempt to engage in relations of solidarity across lines of class and race, by joining those whom the corporate elites abandoned in the decaying public space of the post-industrial city. This desire was born out of the American civil rights movement from the late 1950s onward. It linked backward, to the cross-race, cross-class solidarities of the Roosevelt coalition; but above all it looked forward and outward, to the expansive emancipation projects that arose in the course of decolonization, all across the globe. After 1968, the desire to create a new society in the old urban cores was given shape in countless ad hoc and institutional alternatives. It’s still an explicit and sometimes even effective political project among politicized city-dwellers who refuse anything that smacks of Family America. But on a larger scale, this desire to overcome the old race and class divides remains implicit as an aesthetic, or as an unexpressed longing, among all sorts of people who refuse to think politically and who rarely take part in any organized campaign or protest. Such longings are important. At the heart of the compromise formation that I called “the flexible personality” you find a desire for racial justice, which, as the election of Obama proved, is still a real political force in the USA.

Of course, everything is done to discharge this desire on the carefully reworked tourist facades of cosmopolitan exoticism, where the cyphers of pseudo-graffitti serve up a calculated edginess to the expats of Edge City. If the first mission of flexible capitalism is to coordinate the worldwide movement of goods and division of labor, its second mission is to cultivate the lushly perfumed poppies of managed political oblivion. And it’s been very successful. The collective aspiration to racial equality is replaced by a discrete and ubiquitous mesh of ethereal spectacle. Solidarity becomes something more like “solid air.” That’s what the networked spectacle is: a landfill of all the problematic gaps in social consciousness, so that mobility itself, physical movement through the city, is channeled, tracked, preempted and voided of all its potentials. History and ecology become invisible, and the racialized other shrinks down to an electronic image locked into a tiny little box by copyright law, for strictly private consumption. Watch the revolution on your mobile phone. Release your inmost self to Big Data. This is the state of psychic desperation that has paralyzed the left, and not only in America.

But look what’s happening now. After the cinders of Occupy went cold, a new phase of the civil rights movement was launched, precisely by cellphone videos. Those unsteady small-screen images move even white people to a sense of horror and unspeakable rage. Unspeakable means that despite all efforts of imagination, you refuse to speak about what the people bearing the brunt of the violence must feel. You don’t identify, you just bear witness. In a recent collaboration, the poet Matthias Regan and I put together a geographic database of police killings of black people in the Midwest, between the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Matthias wrote objectivist poems that sift through the media accounts of the killings, revealing the world we live in by the cut-up of its own brutal language. I placed hyperlinked pictures of the dead on a Google map where the lakes and rivers turn into blood. We called the map “Watersheds” and explained our intentions in a text whose title tells the whole story: “Political Ecology Begins When We Say Black Lives Matter.”

Intensifying conflicts lend clarity to one’s position in the social labyrinth. This summer I learned to put the stakes of the present in short words. The violent expression of racism, which forms the molecular bond of nationalism and therefore the crucial resource of empire, is the only distraction of sufficient emotional firepower to make our societies forget the urgent objective Now of onrushing climate change. The US wars in the Middle East have shown how it is done. And the evolution of the European border system since 2011 – with the return of outright fascist parties across the Old Continent – leads to the exact same conclusion. Of course, if you’re white, you don’t suffer in the same way from the abuse of the police. But over the middle and maybe even the short term, the failure to revive a political struggle for equality will leave everyone wide open to the militarist reactions that our decaying socio-environmental systems are already generating. Just as in the 1930s, the race question is once again going to be the hinge of world history. Decide on which side of that divide you want to take your stand. Not the networked spectacle, but only fear and hatred of the other, can make our societies stick their heads in the sand and go on preferring war for oil to any possible future.

The New Spirit

For thousands of young leftists in search of effective politics, the book of the year is called Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. It begins with a question: “If we will not act after one of the largest crises of capitalism, then when?” It goes on to demonstrate the incapacity of Occupy-style direct democracy movements to influence the development of a complex world system. Yet it insists that the refusal of all forms of domination – whether racist, sexist, classist, ableist, intellectualist, or whatever – is a positive gain from the Sixties and Seventies. I quote a representative passage:

Increasingly, multipolar global politics, economic instability, and anthropogenic climate change outpace the narratives we use to structure and make sense of our lives. Each of these is an example of what is termed a complex system, which features nonlinear dynamics, where marginally different inputs can cause dramatically divergent outputs, intricate sets of causes feedback on one another in unexpected ways, and which characteristically operates on scales of space and time that go far beyond any individual’s unaided perception…. Any postcapitalist project will necessarily require the creation of new cognitive maps, political narratives, technological interfaces, economic models, and mechanisms of collective control to be able to marshal complex phenomena for the betterment of humanity.

In one way, this passage fits perfectly with the notion of complex modeling that I borrowed from Félix Guattari and used to critique the social form of neoliberal control in my book Escape the Overcode. Yet the point is that critique, like utopia, is not enough. What became obvious after the failure of the left to seize the occasions of the structural crisis, is that critical and utopian models must be embodied in a constructive program which is itself complex, flexible and able to integrate the aspirations of people at many different positions within the global division of labor. But the constructive program isn’t there today. What’s missing are just not broad left coalitions, hegemonic slogans or political representation, as called for by the populism of Ernesto Laclau, and also, at points, by Srnicek and Williams. What’s missing first of all are informed and capable people who can understand, take apart and reassemble a technologically managed society. This requires both a knowledge of machines and a refusal of domination, including the domination of humanity over what are called “natural resources.” That’s a civilizational challenge, which cannot be pared down to the good old dialectical opposition of workers and capital. Instead there really is a multitude of different subject-positions, all threatened in different ways by the triple crisis. How can they constitute a political force?

Srnicek and Williams are at their best when discussing what they call an “organizational ecology.” By that they mean an expanding set of practical and pedagogical initiatives that can gradually transform their participants through multiple vectors of engagement: with social movements, with media, with education, with production technologies, with scientific research, with cultural forms, with alternative architecture, and so on. Populism is a poor word for this process, since it has to involve many kinds of professionals and will probably depend, for any possible success, on the formation of a new transversalist ethos stimulated by the recognition of rapidly advancing climate change. “Full automation” and “the end of work” are also naive ideas, both because capitalists have always used automation to disempower the working classes, and because a tremendous amount of effort and discipline is going to be required for the transformative work to be done. However, the authors do have a very good phrase for what they are doing: inventing the future. In my view, the book marks a watershed, where the cultural dead ends of unlimited credit and neutralized academic critique are left behind. The next big growth wave is on the horizon. Not just social form, but ecological form will be constructed anew.

What surprises me most in Inventing the Future is the lack of any reference to a major programmatic model of social change that is now being worked out at significant scales, and is well explained by the political consultant Jeremy Rifkin. What Rifkin sells, as a growth package for a future investment wave, is the model of a “Third Industrial Revolution” centered on solar power and computerized micro-manufacturing. His first insight is that localized electric power generated by wind mills and solar panels on everyone’s property or rented roof is only practical when it is hooked up to a centrally managed smart power grid that can channel the surplus wherever it is needed. So he brings a collective principle – that is, the state – back in. In this way he combines the concerns for downscaling and local autonomy that Srnicek and Williams snootily disparage with the concern for upscaling, complexity and socialized infrastructure that they ardently promote. That’s an exemplary way to disentangle some positive strands from the ambiguous snarl of a collapsing neoliberalism. More importantly, Rifkin’s strategic aim in calling for an investment wave centered on solar power, micro-manufacturing and smart grids is to undo the hegemony of the giant corporations, particularly the oil companies which are directly responsible for climate change and which also constitute the civilian component of military imperialism. The basic idea is stunningly simple: The generation of power by and for machines is the generation of power in society. To change that, emancipatory forces call for the association of autonomous producers by means of a new state form, what may be called a “partner state,” regulated and limited in view of a general political ecology. Such a position is currently being theorized in practice, as one can see through the syntheses offered by Michel Bauwens and his many collaborators in the p2p foundation. Now, that’s the spirit!

Community Production

I’m deeply suspicious of the corporate consultant Jeremy Rikin, as any intellectual should be. Only a powerful practical critique can keep the ideals of the “third industrial revolution” from becoming another white mythology. We must be responsible for our populist rhetoric, since it will soon be incorporated into a new hegemony. To speak more specifically about the creation of institutional frames for local productivity, social solidarity and ecological resilience – or what I called “the three beacons” – I want to end this text with another reflection on self-orientation and social form. This time it’s about Detroit, the broken capital of Fordism, where a great rebellion occurred in 1967 and white flight was pushed the furthest, opening the streets for a Black Republic. Detroit is a story of real emancipation. However, the very foundation of this republic deprived it of an economy. The city hit rock bottom after 2008; and today, its downtown core is in the throes of mega-gentrification. In Detroit the cartography of class is crudely transparent: the major developer is the CEO of a predatory lender at the heart of the 2008 crisis, called Quicken Loans. But the metro area is huge, vast tracts are abandoned, the scale of decay is too big for real-estate speculation to absorb. The question that’s being asked, more intensely here than elsewhere, is how to replace a failed system?

In October 2014 I traveled with two other members of the Compass group – Claire Pentecost and Sarah Lewison – to a conference entitled “New Work, New Culture.” There we heard a talk by Blair Evans, a black permaculturalist and social entrepreneur who has put together a Fab Lab called Incite Focus. The main project was to use sophisticated but cheap computer-controlled wood- and metal-working equipment to make an integrated house and winter vegetable garden powered by the sun. Cost: around $10,000 if the labor is done by the future inhabitants. These kinds of houses fit the low-density, off-the-grid conditions of a bankrupt metropolis, and the mode of construction forges new skills among the population. Home-made cars getting 100 miles to the gallon are also under development, in the city that GM built. From Evans’ viewpoint, corporations make poor people sell their work wholesale and buy their lives back retail – a losing equation, if you’re allowed to participate in the job system at all. Incite Focus seeks to develop micro-manufacturing capacities that can meet local needs through a new kind of labor activity, known as “community production.”

For the first time in my life, I got a real taste of the constructive imagination. What’s being envisioned, and not just by Evans, is a way to generate grassroots resilience in the face of organized abandonment. Instead of denying the machines we live by, as traditional environmentalism has done, the idea is to foster a social ecology of machinic empowerment, at grips with the problems of race and class (quite unlike most CNC technology projects). Community production is conceived in light of climate chaos and offered as a practical model at a time of penury and everyday disaster. Pragmatic goals are used to measure success or failure. The project brings racial justice issues directly to grips with the emerging forms of industrial activity on which a decarbonized future can be founded. This means that without betraying vital self-interest, people can place themselves on a pathway that implies basic changes in social relations over the middle term, notably breaking the vice-grip of mass-manufacturing and power-generation conglomerates. This kind of technology can become useful far beyond the United States, wherever labor and invention power are needed to fill the gaps left by a collapsing corporate state. On the horizon of such an experiment is a new social form, able to provide multi-scale support networks for productive communities.

Deep unfulfilled aspirations merge with complex organizations to take up daily struggles. This is something more than critique or utopia. The model of a new world is in the palm of your hand, feel it there. It’s a living picture, but also a tool for building something new.

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