Thursday, January 30, 2014

Foucault and Marx posted by Richard Seymour

Foucault implicitly and explicitly draws on Marx’s arguments in Capital to help explain the logic for historical change. Foucault always introduces Marx as supporting evidence and never as a figure to be disproved. As Foucault makes clear (221), capitalism could not exist without the form of control that Foucault calls ‘discipline’ and discipline could not succeed without the rise of capitalism. In many ways, one of Discipline and Punish’s main projects in its treatment of class-struggle, power and knowledge is to provide a way for new students of Marx to escape the PCF’s increasingly unfruitful use of the terms ‘ideology’ and ‘false consciousness’ as explanations for why the working class submits to middle-class authority. … At its heart, Discipline and Punish is a stunning dismantling of the cherished bourgeois ideal of the individual and the political, economic and cultural valences of that concept. … Foucault uses Discipline and Punish to argue that the cultivation of the individual in these terms camouflages the middle class’s desire to become the dominant group within a capitalist economy. The scene of the contract obscures actual power inequalities, Enlightenment reason is linked to coercive force and the humanist mythos of the authentic personality of the individual has been historically constructed as a device to control threatening collectives, namely those of the working and lower classes.
— Anne Schwan, Stephen Shapiro, How to Read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Pluto Press, 2011

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Benefits Street: the neoliberalism in our souls? posted by Richard Seymour

"In every real and living economy every actor is always an entrepreneur."  - Ludwig von Mises.

What happens when 'entrepreneurs' fail?  What happens when, for one reason or another, they consistently fail to deploy their 'capital' in such a way as to develop reliable income streams?  The first thing they do is withdraw from 'the market'.  They depend on benefits.  And then?  I'll come back to that.

At the beginning of the first episode of the first series of 'Benefits Street', a local informant guides a camera man down a fairly average looking working class street in Birmingham, points at house fronts, and identifies each as "unemployed, unemployed... unemployed... unemployed...".  The whole street is essentially a dumping ground for the local reserve army of labour: something I would imagine the local council understands and plans for.  The programme is not called 'Unemployment Street'; that is still, to a large extent, understood as a social problem.  It is called 'Benefits Street'; that is increasingly understood as a lifestyle, and an ethos.  

There's a melancholic sense of decline associated with this.  The discourse around the programme is that this street once epitomised the 'respectable working class', as opposed to the feckless 'underclass' that supposedly persists today.  Where once, we are told, proud working class families were industrious and obsessively clean, making as much as possible with precious little, and only relied upon benefits as a temporary expedient, today it has become a 'way of life'.  Sleeping on the sofa, smoking fags, sitting on the front doorstep, drinking beer in the street, shouting at immigrants, shouting at spouses, shouting at the kids - a whole 'way of life'.  This is what the programme seeks to capture with anthropological interest.

Of course, this is partially a melancholia associated with the decline of empire, the loss of global omnipotence associated with it, and the changing composition of the metropole in the aftermath.  The narrator of 'Benefits Street' remarks on the many 'nationalities' on the street, over shots of diverse skin tones and sartorial tendencies.  This is clearly a euphemistic way of saying that the place is multiracial, and particularly that it has a high proportion of recent migrants.  Subsequent events depict serious rivalries between 'locals' and 'newcomers'.  It doesn't matter what 'side' you take here, as the connotations are what matter.  Merely establishing that immigration is part of the terrain, the fabric of Britain's 'decline', its development of a hopeless class of cradle to grave losers, is sufficient.  That sets the scene.  The connection is already half-established in people's minds anyway; the resentment already simmering.  Cameron's recent promise to remove benefits from people who don't speak English was very well-timed and tapped into the same stream of resentment.

Not everything goes the way of the Right in this programme.  'Reality television' is not reality, of course, but it has to aspire to some degree of realism if it is to be convincing: unvarnished characters, mundane dialogue, real accents, blunt native wisdom, drama emerging from the humdrum and the everyday - this is all in the conventions.  Of course, the programme is dishonest: it is entertainment masquerading as a documentary.  Of course, the characters are lied about by omission or other means.  Even so, it is not possible to depict them as yacht-owning, mansion-dwelling con merchants.  The people on 'Benefits Street' are poor.  The abundance of coping mechanisms - booze, fags, anti-depressants, other drugs - tell you that many of them are miserable.  The couple accused of welfare fraud are obviously struggling to make ends meet means.  Those reactionary myths, of a gold-plated welfare royalty laughing all the way to the bank, fall at the first hurdle of even televisual 'reality'.  Still, as I will suggest, this is not incompatible with the neoliberal mantra.

Equally, the programme is not unsympathetic to its subjects.  Indeed, it takes particular care to develop its characters such that, even if it isn't completely honest about them, it is not thoroughly dehumanising either.  This fact has been cited in its defence by reactionaries, who profess to have found themselves warming to certain characters.  But there is nothing original or surprising about this.  The dominant currency of the neoliberal Right is the faux sympathetic line: 'we must help these people to help themselves'.  The ultimate, absurd conclusion of this is Iain Duncan Smith's claim, in a speech referencing 'Benefits Street', that his welfare cuts place him in the abolitionist tradition.  The brutal flip side of this 'compassionate' bullying, of course, is the demand for eugenic eradication of the underclass: bring in breeding licenses, Twitter sages suggested, and make them prove themselves fit citizens before they start littering the place with more spawn.  This does not necessarily have anything to do with biogenetic ideology, although the resurgence of this in recent years is instructive; it's sufficient for people to believe that 'lazy, feckless spongers' will raise uneducated kids with no morals, thus passing on their 'way of life' from one generation to the next,

So, this brings me back to the question of what comes after people withdraw from 'the market' and depend instead on benefits.  The neoliberal concept of 'the market' is quite unlike that in classical liberalism.  It is not the self-regulating mechanism that tends toward equilibrium, as long as the state does not distort pricing signals.  It is an educative mechanism; it teaches you how to govern yourself.  We know that neoliberals consider 'the market' to be an extraordinarily efficient, spontaneous order, and that its supposed efficiency has to do with its ability to automatically piece together the millions and millions of dispersed fragments of knowledge about wants and desires, and communicate them in simple pricing mechanisms, that enables the best allocation of resources.  There is a certain pseudo-democratic rhetoric of popular choice in this - never mind trying to tell people what they should want, with your paternalistic institutions and laws; let smart businessmen give them what they really want.  But actually, more important is the process of learning.  It is through developing plans of action, making choices, allocating resources, and so on, that 'entrepreneurs' - and remember, there is no actor who is not an 'entrepreneur' - learn to behave rationally.  Because the market punishes irrationality.  'The market' is a school of self-government, and it is only by immersing actors constantly in market situations, as widely as possible, that they will become effective at governing themselves.  In this sense, 'the market' constructs its own subject.

That is the theory, at any rate.  According to this view, then, if you take people out of 'the market', they lose contact with the educative process.  They lose the sense of 'entrepreneurship', of scenting an opportunity, of putting their resources, their information, their skills to work, in order to snatch a prize before someone else does.  They lose the physical and mental capital, the fitness, the skills, the aptitude, for 'enterprise'.  This is 'welfare dependency'.  This is what Iain Duncan Smith characterised as a state of 'slavery'; ironically, and entirely logically from the neoliberal purview, the cure to this 'slavery' is to compel people to work for free.  This is not simply about saving money, and it is not at all about the 'free market'.  'The market' may be the ultimate remedy, but neoliberals know that a strong state is required to ensure the dominance of 'the market'.  (You could consider the recent arrests for drug offences on James Turley street a dramatic illustration of that principle.)  It is to a significant degree about subject formation.  Or, in a different idiom, the production of souls.

In this vein, the ultimate follow-up series to 'Benefits Street', which I'm not entirely convinced we won't see, would be 'Make-Over Street', in which a team of behavioural economists, therapists, career and financial advisors, make-up artists, plastic surgeons and dieticians descend on the street for a year or so and attempt to turn its baffled citizens into dynamic, glamorous 'entrepreneurs'.  The series would end with a lingering set of before and after shots, displaying the success of neoliberal self-improvement.  And the final shot would simply be of the redeemed street and its entire cast of characters, all out in business attire, each raising a glass of champagne to the camera.  Big smiles.  Doing Britain, and Iain Duncan Smith, proud.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

'The perspectives of the left in Europe' posted by Richard Seymour

My generous hosts at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities in Skopje have posted a video of the talk/discussion I did at the inaugural meeting of the School for Politics and Critique last week:

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Against Austerity posted by Richard Seymour

My new book features a nice plug from Paul Mason on the front cover, also quoted over at Amazon:

Be out in March.  Stay cool 'til then.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Questions to which the answer is already given posted by Richard Seymour

Fame at last.  Alex Callinicos writes:

In the aftermath of this debacle [at Grangemouth], much of the radical left have rushed to give it the cast of inevitability. Chief among these is Richard Seymour, who, since breaking with the SWP last spring, has been working overtime to widen the gap separating him from revolutionary politics:
It’s important to recognise that, quite possibly, there was nothing that the left could have done that would have changed the outcome of this particular struggle.  This is the intellectual leap that we have to make: not every puzzle has an answer; not every immediate struggle can be won. There isn’t a short-term solution to every problem.
The fact that things could have been done differently, and better, is no guarantee that with the balance of class forces as they presently are the workers at Grangemouth could have achieved victory. We have to break from the habit of thinking that struggle itself is sufficient, that an outburst of class or social warfare can by itself shift the overall balance of forces in our favour.3
Seymour’s last sentence is puzzling. What else could shift the balance of forces except “an outburst of class or social warfare”?  The class struggle is precisely a war, in which the two sides can only establish their own and their opponents’ strength and resolve through actual combat. Thatcher installed neoliberalism through inflicting a series of major defeats on the workers’ movement. Of course, every struggle has a host of conditions-economic, political, ideological and the rest-that shape the antagonists’ determination and capacity to win, but their relative importance and joint effect can themselves only be tested in struggle. 

Now, the 'Seymour' who appears in the pages of the ISJ may occasionally say fragments of things that I have said, but otherwise any resemblance to a real person is almost entirely coincidental.  That 'Seymour', it has been suggested to me, is a manifestation of the unconscious.  Against this, corrections and clarifications are futile.  Still, just this once, for demonstrative purposes, I will state a bit of the obvious.

You know, it really doesn't take a professor of politics at Kings to remind me that the class struggle is a war.  Nor even that Thatcher instituted neoliberalism through brutal class and social warfare.  One is not - how do you mammals say? - 'thick'.  I even wrote something about this for a small quarterly journal once.

But Callinicos's last sentence is puzzling, in that it suggests he isn't at all puzzled by my last sentence.  He gets exactly what I'm talking about.  Outbursts of struggle are not in themselves sufficient to shift the balance of forces in favour of the working class or the left; you have to work on building up the infrastructure, the material conditions in which outbursts of struggle will have more chance of success.  This is actually made clear in the cited article from The Exchange, in the paragraphs immediately following those quoted, in which I say, among other things: "We need to begin a process of reconstructing class capacities, articulated with an equivalent process of rebuilding the left’s political capacities."  

Not that opaque, surely?  And is the point in any way rebutted or qualified by stating (whether accurately or not) that the relative importance and effect of these conditions can "only be tested in struggle"?  If not, then the reason for the feint, and the non-sequitur, ought surely to be obvious.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Against Austerity posted by Richard Seymour

My upcoming book, Against Austerity (Pluto Press, 2014) is due out in March.  The Guardian has a brief plug today:

Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made

Fed up with austerity and puzzled at why so little has changed in the world economic order? Richard Seymour, the British Marxist writer and activist who runs the blog Lenin's Tomb, offers this analysis of how austerity is just one part of a wider elite plan to radically re-engineer society and everyday life in the interests of profit, consumerism and speculative finance. It's an argument others on the left, such as Susan George, have made, so Seymour's book – which will hit bookshelves in March – is the latest addition to the oeuvre. Seymour argues that it is possible to forge a new collective resistance and come up with alternatives to the current system.

NB: It is so not like Susan George's book. 

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

This machine produces neoliberal subjects posted by Richard Seymour

The profound error made by those who have announced the ‘death of liberalism’ is to confuse ideological representation accompanying the implementation of neoliberal policies with the practical normativity that specifically characterises neoliberalism. As a result, the relative discredit surrounding the ideology of laissez-faire today in no way prevents neoliberalism from prevailing more than ever as a normative system possessed of a certain efficiency - that is, the capacity to direct from within the actual practice of governments, enterprises and, in addition to them, millions of people who are not necessarily conscious of the fact. For this is the crux of the matter: how is it that, despite the utterly catastrophic consequences in which neoliberal policies have resulted, they are increasingly operative, to the extent of pushing states and societies into ever graver political crises and social regression? How is it that such policies have been developed and radicalised for more than thirty years without encountering sufficient resistance to check them?
The answer is not, and cannot be, confined to the ‘negative’ aspects of neoliberal policies - that is, the programmed destruction of regulations and institutions. Neoliberalism is not merely destructive of rules, institutions and rights. It is also productive of certain kinds of social relations, certain ways of living, certain subjectivities. In other words, at stake in neoliberalism is nothing more, nor less, than the form of our existence - the way in which we are led to conduct ourselves, to relate to others and to ourselves. Neoliberalism defines a certain existential norm in western societies and, far beyond them, in all those societies that follow them on the path of ‘modernity’. This norm enjoins everyone to live in a world of generalised competition; it calls upon wage-earning classes and populations to engage in economic struggle against one another; it aligns social relations with the model of the market; it promotes the justification of ever greater inequalities; it even transforms the individual, no called on to conceive and conduct him- or herself as an enterprise. For more than a third of a century, this existential norm has presided over public policy, governed global economic relations, transformed society, and reshaped subjectivity…
The thesis defended in this book is precisely that neoliberalism, far from being an ideology or an economic policy, is firstly and fundamentally a rationality, and as such tends to structure and organise not only the action of rulers, but also the conduct of the ruled. The principal characteristic of neoliberal rationality is the generalisation of competition as a behavioural norm of the enterprise as a model of subjectivation. … Neoliberalism is a rationality of contemporary capitalism, freed of its archive references and fully acknowledged as a historical construct and general norm of existence … Neoliberalism can be defined as the set of discourses, practices and apparatuses that determine a new mode of government of human beings in accordance with the universal principle of competition.
— Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, Verso, London & New York, 2013, pp. 2-4

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

They shit in doorways, don't they? posted by Richard Seymour

An archeology of race-making scatology.


A top Tory warned that a minority of the immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria could escalate existing problems, including pickpocketing and defecating on doorsteps.
Philippa Roe, Conservative leader of Westminster City Council, told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme: "I know the vast majority of Romanians and Bulgarians planning to come to the UK are planning to work and contribute to society here.
"It's this minority one is really concerned about but it is this minority that has this really big impact.
"You've only got to wander around Marble Arch at 7.30 in the morning to see the camps.
"We have people walking out of their front door to find people sleeping on their front doorsteps, people defecating on their front doorstep.  ('Top Tory claims Roma 'defecating on London doorsteps'', ITV News, 1 January 2014)


The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, came under fire last week after he was reported to have attacked travellers as crooks who caused "all kinds of trouble including defecating in doorways".
He called for police and local authorities to crack down on travellers and demanded an end to sentimental attitudes towards them.
"Many of these so-called travellers seem to think that it's perfectly OK for them to cause mayhem in an area, to go burgling, thieving, breaking into vehicles, causing all kinds of trouble, including defecating in the doorways of firms and so on and getting away with it."  (Vikram Dodd, 'Anger after Straw lets fly at travellers as 'crooks'', The Guardian, 1 September 1999)


"“The telephone is her lifeline. Her family pay the bill, and help her out as best they can. Immigrants have offered to buy her house - at a price which the prospective landlord would be able to recover from his tenants in weeks, or at most a few months. She is becoming afraid to go out. Windows are broken. She finds excreta pushed through her letter box..."  (Enoch Powell, 'Rivers of Blood' speech, 20 April 1968 - h/t Chris Brooke

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