Sunday, April 10, 2005
Capitalism and Narcissism. posted by Richard SeymourSF Capital touches on a theme that anticapitalists had better take note of:
It's of course no accident that the current power elite (Spielberg, Lucas, Gates, Blair) belonged to the so-called counterculture of the 1960s. Capital, needless to say, is indifferent to individual human motivation, but happy slaves are better slaves, and the reprogramming of the way the master class thinks (about itself, about workers, about capital) has been crucial to the presentation of the multi-nationalised capital's current dominion as immutable fact. And George Lucas' 'transubstantiation' of Apocalypse Now into Star Wars is emblematic of the shifts in late capitalism since the 60s. The smooth transition from hippy to hyper-capitalist, from slacker hedonism to authoritarianism, from engagement to entertainment, retrospectively reveals what the punks knew so we when they cackled 'never trust a hippie'. Far from posing any threat to capitalism, the dope-smoking, soap-dodging rockers of the 60s were acting as capitalism's reserve army of exploiters, whose time spent at festivals and on the experimental avant-garde fringe did little or nothing to engineer lines of collective escape, but yielded instead resources for the new forms of enslavement that loom everywhere around us now. Exactly those likely to have 'approved' of Kubrick's critique of corporate-controlled environments in 1968 are now administering their own 'total control' systems, all the more sinister for their shirtsleeves 'informality', all the more enveloping because the bosses wire themselves into the circuit, flaunting their own self-exploitation as both inevitable and exemplary. As Deleuze and Guattari had it in Anti-Oedipus, "The bourgeois sets the example, he absorbs surplus value for ends that ... have nothing to do with his own enjoyment: more utterly enslaved than the lowest of slaves, he is the first servant of the ravenous machine, the beast of the reproduction of capital. 'I too am a slave'- these are the new words spoken by the master."
The hippies are back, pomo-style, replete with quasi-pacifist doxies, New Age mysticism and excursions to some Other scene, (India, Cambodia etc). They have preached the end of this and that (managerial capitalism, class struggle, ideology), insist on the need to 'unplug' from the circuit of consumption like good Western Buddhists. Baudrillard insists that consumption is objectless, the ceaseless acquisition of artefacts that in fact have no end in themselves, and in doing so repeats a theme from Schopenhauer. Consumption is, in its 'social logic', the denial of pleasure, which is no longer a rational end in itself. For Schopenhauer, Desire merely perpetuates itself, serves no end other than its own augmentation and reproduction. Artur's solution, in the end, was to imagine the sound of one hand clapping, which is probably one more than the poor bugger ever heard after one of his bitter soliloquies.
Baudrillard is in fact much more radical - he argues that consumption is a function of production and is therefore 'directly and totally collective'. That is, we are conditioned in systems of signs and codes of ethics to acquire and consume. Individually, we experience pleasure, but that is incidental - the main purpose of our collective consumption is to maintain the circuit of production. (Remember how, after 9/11, US consumers were encouraged to shop and shop big, otherwise "the terrorists win"?) The natural solution, although Baudrillard does not suggest it, is to collectively re-assert the principle of pleasure for itself. To do so, of course, would require us to escape the system of signs that interpellates us as consumers, sieze control of the means of production, and put it to some other use than competitive accumulation.
Consumption has another function, of course. As a consumer, one is never the satiate for more than a few seconds. New shoes, though functional, lose their fetishistic aura after a while. Then they simply become dead objects, ready-to-hand household items.
Detail from Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes.
As a consumer, one's perception of time therefore contracts. There is only this moment, then the next, then the next. In his justly famous, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch notes that the mass exodus to collective narcissism began precisely with the post-Sixties millenarian sense of impending doom. He finds a curious, motley crew of ex-radicals (like Susan Stern of the Weathermen, a terrorist faction of the Students for a Democratic Society; or Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies; or his one-time associate Jerry Rubin) who suddenly, like, totally have to get their heads together. The new objects of mass consciousness are not marches and peace signs, but things like est, gestalt, smorgasbord, hypnotism, tai chi, health food etc etc.
Failing to make the revolution in society, the former Sixties radicals decided to make revolutions in their heads and beds. Since the society had no future, it made sense to retreat to the self. The irony was that this glorification of the individual was coterminous with its complete obliteration. We are celebrated as individuals precisely at the moment when we are most subsumed into the morality of advertising, most integrated into capitalist production and consumption. Our cynicism, Lasch notes, which we are inclined to regard as what preserves our integrity against the illusions of ideology and Hollywood myth-making, in fact makes us more susceptible to accepting our subservience. The dissolution of illusion and myth, far from sharpening one's perception of reality, in fact reduces ones interest in the real world. As it is all lies out there anyway, best to retreat inwards, to this privade monadic self, and nurture it against all the bogey men. This new narcissism is not the rugged invidualism of pioneers, but one that is medicalised, obsessed with self-improvement, and the approbation of peers and authorities. The world, far from being a rough wilderness one has to force into one's own likeness, is now a mirror. Deprived of real control over our lives, of meaningful work and collective social engagement, engendered in a war of all against all by capitalism, we retreat into grandiose phantasies about ourselves which we hope will be confirmed and applauded in the mirror (hence, everyone has their 'fifteen minutes').
Some short time after 9/11, a good friend of mine who regarded himself as a bit of a left-winger, announced that he wasn't into politics any more. He decided that it was better he should improve himself before going out trying to change others. Good luck with that, I thought. What we better realise is that there are people obsessed with such monadic purity, this 'Beautiful Soul' narcissism, in our movement. Those who insist on having blood-free hands. They are terrified of Leninist politics, which is nothing more for them than realpolitik practised by Marxist intellectuals. They practise a formal neutrality toward all religion as if they existed in a vacuum. They are forever 'condemning' this or that atrocity, thereby pleading their innocence before an invisible tribunal. They automatically approve of 'the multitude', which has no nasty connotations of class, race or gender. The undecidability of the multitude, the fact that it may just as well be a mob as a revolutionary mass, and that the outcome may well rest on the conscious intervention of - tighten your sphinctre - a 'vanguard', is glibly skated over. They prefer moralism to analysis. Qua religions, all fundamentalisms are for them the same so that a passionate political stance is necessarily dogmatic, intolerant, irrationalist, prone to violence, anti-democratic.
Naturally, anyone who evinces the slightest passion about anything is convicted of 'religious' fervour. I confess. I give myself up to you and the secular authorities. I am a fanatic, a freak, a wild-eyed messianist, one of Thomas Carlyle's Apostles of Liberty, a worshipper at the Temple of Bronstein, whapping my own bible marked 'Manifesto', worshipping my pantheon of saints and vilifying the devils who tempt the people with 'reform' this and 'tax break' that. The only deal I will accept is total salvation. Precisely, it is the form of religion, not the various mythos, that should be appropriated by the rationalist left. Revolutionary messianism, fanaticism, is the only way to disrupt one's embedment in a system whose hegemony is so thoroughly entrenched. The total identification with a greater collective like class is the only way to break with the narcissism that capitalism as both consumption and production engenders.