January 26, 2010


A reader writes:

    have just read Capitalist Realism and can relate directly with How Mark Fisher talks about the old/heavy, new/light inspection. I used to be a FE teacher but I now drive buses; I had to leave FE a few years ago due to depression. Recently all our buses were fitted with a device that records bus movements such as breaking, cornering etc. This information is sent via GPS to a website where individual drivers can access their data (performance?) Drivers are, of course, heavily encouraged to constantly monitor their efforts. Targets have been established are we are in no doubt that in the near future this personal data will be used as a disciplinary tool. As with Mark's example of the teacher we will spend less time concentrating on driving and more time looking at the new little box on the dashboard with three LED's; 'is my driving green, amber or red?

Some other interesting responses to Capitalist Realism here, here, and here, which I will engage with in more detail when I've got through my current thicket of marking, teaching, editing, freelance deadlines and public appearances. (I also have posts on paternalism and Richard Kelly's The Box which are very near completion - but they've been in that state for quite some time.)

Posted by mark at 07:52 AM | TrackBack

January 22, 2010

"A sealed loop ..."

Dan Jenkins writes:

    Just wanted to say how taken I was by your comments about education. ... I am a Head of English in a secondary school. I haven’t read your book yet but the comments you posted in reply to Graham struck a chord.

    If all of this auditing really did weed out those poor teachers there may well be a purpose in it but it rarely does – poor teachers survive because they are better than no teacher and generally get given a good reference when they evince signs that they want to move on (the GTC is a whole other can of worms) – and yes I agree those that can fill in forms, find meaning and comfort in meaningless data and the set meaningless targets for others tend to rise to the top.

    The thing that struck me most was your reference to the cost – the hidden cost in what appears to be a costless process – the psychic cost, the wearying cost which reduces good teachers to tired teachers.

    I don’t know if you have looked at the new OFSTED grading system – to be accorded Outstanding now a teacher must engage all pupils/students at all times – a requirement which appears to many (including myself) as ridiculous. Yet rather than institutions pointing this out and thus refusing to play the game, they have working parties set up to try and achieve this impossible dream. It seems that the Olympic motto of Higher, Faster, Longer (or whatever it is) has now become the motto of Education.

Dan also draws my attention to the sinsister Fischer Family Trust:

    The data generated by FFT are inviolate and target grades are generated from the pupil specific data – no reality check is allowed to take place and teacher’s ‘success’ or otherwise is measured against the figures produced ( an impossible prediction cannot be changed because these are the figures we are judged on). It’s a sealed loop of target setting and judgement of performance by results that feeds round into ever more invasive Performance Management target setting for teachers and Lesson Observations by senior teachers working with the aforementioned impossible standards set by OFSTED. Which of course then leads onto valuing schools based on league tables… which leads back into FFT targets (of course set at the impossibly high category D – 25th percentile)

    This you all know I am sure – the point about audit culture – the way teachers now have to be proficient with a whole skill set which has less and less to do with Teaching and Learning and more and more about book keeping. This, I feel, is in keeping with an erroneous belief in ‘accountability’ – a quasi legal notion that being ‘responsible for your data’ will somehow improve the experience of learners ( service culture ideas of consumers and consumer rights in here too I feel). There is a pun on accounting and accountability that I am unable to make but it is in there somewhere!

Posted by mark at 08:42 AM | TrackBack

January 17, 2010

Spectres of revolution


"Graham's claims about those calling for revolution seem a little off," writes Paul John Ennis , of my recent conversation with Graham. "For one there is almost a constant cloud of cautiousness that hangs over leftism today and Badiou, for one, does not push for a classic revolution but something like carving out autonomous spaces - zones within capital but resistant to it." Reid was also very troubled by the post. A measure of clarification is called for.

It isn't that anyone is calling for a revolution - on the contrary, there are very few such calls - so much as that there is a continuing appeal to revolution, an alleged revolutionary identification. This not only amounts to a weak messianic gesture, it is also completely at variance with the institutionalized nature of cultural Marxism that Paul describes: "cultural Marxism finds a safe ground in the midst of academia where ones commitment is always partial and never costly". What this produces in continentalist leftism is a kind of camp solemnity, and I fully share Graham's exasperation with it. In Paul's own excellent book of interviews, Post-Continental Voices (forthcoming on Zer0), Ian Bogost describes very well a familiar disjunction:

    Continental philosophy has long prided itself on its purported coupling to the material world, mostly through a particular sense of political action. For better or worse, that typically falls in the wake of May ’68, a group of ideas that Peter Starr has given the apt name “logics of failed revolt.” Starr traces this dynamic in France until the 1976 abandonment of Leninism, but it is clear that an idealized attitude of leftist reform continues to pervade applications of continental philosophy. This is particularly ironic in the United States, where I am based, since the decades since ’68 have simultaneously hosted the massive growth of continental philosophy and the wholesale rejection of socialist politics in any form.

Moreover, I can grant everything that Reid - and Alex Andrews in the comments - say about the practical-empirical left (no-one involved in leftist organisations really expects a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society, nor have they for at least a half a century). But this is to ignore the traces that the the concept "revolution" carries with it, and the way that the left (of whatever stripe) remains haunted by those traces. I believe that "revolution" is - and has been for a long time - a malignant ghost for the left, and one of the regrettable effects of Badiou and Zizek has been to revive it. The fact that Badiou no longer thinks that either a Jacobin or a Leninist revolution is possible, that all we can hope for is some miserable "autonomy" from Capital, only compounds this impasse. The effect of continually invoking the violent theatre of Jacobin revolt can only make small zones of autonomy appear even more paltry, producing a sense of gloomy resignation very far from the "encouragement" that Badiou seeks to engender. But the alternative to this resignation is not Zizek's relentless litany of Robespierre-Lenin-Mao; Badiou is surely right that the time for that kind of politics is long gone.

Zizek should be taken at his word; a real repetition of Lenin would entail a break from Lenin - and, I would add, from the co-ordinates of that exhausted tradition. When Badiou says that we must invent the "communist hypothesis" again, from nothing, that is also correct, provided that the word "communist" - alongside "emancipatory", "progressive", "radical" - can itself be dispensed with: such words, dulled by their ceaseless circulation in the cultural left and by their appropriation in Capital's NuLanguage, taste stale in our mouths. Badiou is nowhere more inspiring than when he writes of how "exalting" the task of inventing a new politics in the current conditions can be. And Zizek is right when he says that the very apparent hopelessness of the current situation ought to licence an experimental attitude towards politics.

So let's be clear. I'm very far from saying that nothing can ever change. There has been some discussion of whether Capitalist Realism is a pessimistic book. For me, it isn't pessimistic, but it is negative. The pessimism is already embedded in everyday life - it is what Zizek would call the "spontaneous unreflective ideology" of our times. Identifying the embedded, unreflective pessimism is an act of negativity which, I hope, can make some contribution to denaturalizing that pessimism (which, by its very nature, does not identify itself as such, and is covered over by a compulsory positivity which forbids negativity). Far from nothing ever changing, something already has changed, massively - the bank crisis was an event without a subject, whose implications are yet to be played out. The terrain - the crashed present, littered with the ideological rubble of failed projects - is there to be fought over. And I believe that it can be seized by those who have been most deeply cooked in neo-liberalism and post-Fordism, not the French immobilisers, the nostaglic 68ers, the hay bale agragrians, or anyone else resigned to playing Canute to the rising tide of Capital. We can only win if we reclaim modernization.

(On which, there are some excellent strategic suggestions by David Harvey here. Great title too, with a wonderful hyperstitional puissance: "Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition".)

Posted by mark at 04:21 PM | TrackBack

January 14, 2010

"This is not the time to score political points" ...

The response by some commenters to Peter Hallward's essential piece on Haiti shows once again why The Guardian's Comment Is Free is so often one of the most depressing sites on the net. In a swamp of middle mass complacency like CiF, you'd expect the howls of "Half-witted pseudo-marxist gibberish", but what of the staggering: "You can't bring history into this." Then there's the crushingly predictable: "Are you absolutely sure that this is a good time to be scoring poltical points?" This liberal commonplace needs to be completely overturned. What is the implication here? That to confront the real, long-term causes of why so many died is somehow not "respecting" them? Needless to say, the idea that politics should be suspended in the face of suffering is the very hallmark of contemporary ideology. Now is not the time for political discussion, we'll look at the long-term causes later .... But, since Band Aid this "emergency" temporality has become a permanent state of affairs, allowing neoliberalism to further strengthen its hegemony under the cloak of "post-politics". Of course some even claim that the concept of "neoliberalism" itself is "gibberish" spouted by only by "half-witted Marxists". What this kind of claim establishes is the depressing reach and power that capitalist realism has over large areas of the British middle class. The real capitalist realists are not those working in neoliberal think tanks, who know full well that neoliberalism is a political project that has to be ruthlessly, continually enforced, but those who deny the existence of neoliberalism itself; they are the liberal dupes who, in the name of a "realism" that routinely ignores facts and evidence while pretending to appeal to them, propagate a "commonsense" which takes place inside the reality system instantiated by neoliberalism.

One irony of this squeamishness about "bringing politics" into situations of mass human suffering, of course, is that, as Naomi Klein consummately demonstrated in The Shock Doctrine, the neoliberal project has depended on its ability to rapidly helicopter into just these situations and exploit them. It is ready to do so again. Witness, for instance, the initial pronouncements of the Heritage Foundation - the text was subsequently changed, but here is what it originally said:

    Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S.

    In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region…

    While on the ground in Haiti, the U.S. military can also interrupt the nightly flights of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast and counter the ongoing efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to destabilize the island of Hispaniola. This U.S. military presence, which should also include a large contingent of U.S. Coast Guard assets, can also prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in rickety watercraft to try to enter the U.S. illegally.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. must be prepared to insist that the Haiti government work closely with the U.S. to insure that corruption does not infect the humanitarian assistance flowing to Haiti. Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue.

Needless to say, I'm not of course suggesting that people shouldn't give to humanitarian relief. As one of the most perspicuous CiF commenters - thank goodness, there are some - notes, it is those who object to politics being mentioned who are imposing a stupid binary. Contributing to humanitarian aid, which we all must do - and I'm told that this is one of the best charities - in no way precludes a political explanation. Conversely, renouncing the political (or restricting it to where it "properly belongs") doesn't mean that it will go away - it just means that, with the unwitting assistance of the CiF general anti-intellect, the powerful and wealthy will continue to impose a politics that serves their interests.
Live and let die

See also Lenin and Ashley Smith, who describes how, "[i]n close collaboration with the new UN Special Envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton, Obama has pushed for an economic program familiar to much of the rest of the Caribbean--tourism, textile sweatshops and weakening of state control of the economy through privatization and deregulation."

Posted by mark at 06:31 PM | TrackBack

January 10, 2010

NuBureaucracy and Capitalist Realism

12th February 2010
Council Room
Laurie Grove Baths
Centre for Cultural Studies

Neoliberalism presents itself as the enemy of bureaucracy, the destroyer of the
nanny state and the eliminator of red tape. Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism (Zer0 books, 2009) argues that, contrary to this widely accepted story, bureaucracy has proliferated under neoliberalism. Far from decreasing, bureaucracy has changed form, spreading all the more insidiously in its newly decentralised mode. This 'nu-bureaucracy' is often carried out by workers themselves, now induced into being their own auditors. Capitalist Realism aims to challenge the successful ideological doublethink in which workers' experience of increasing bureaucratisation co-exists with the idea that bureaucracy belongs to a 'Stalinist' past.

This symposium will explore nu-bureaucracy and other related concepts developed in Capitalist Realism, such as 'business ontology' and 'market Stalinism'. How has nu-bureaucracy affected education and public services, and how can it be resisted? What implications might the attack on nu-bureaucracy have for a renewed anti-capitalism?

Respondent, Alberto Toscano, Department of Sociology

Posted by mark at 10:18 PM | TrackBack

January 09, 2010

Do not miss this


Weird Tales for Winter is a hauntological collective experience to be broadcast over 8 days from 25th January 2010 on Resonance 104.4 FM. Send a message to exoticpylon[at]gmail.com titled 'subscribe' for further updates, images and all kind of stuff...

broadcast time - midnight on Resonance 104.4 FM

Moon Wiring Club
Minuke by Nigel Kneale

West Norwood Cassette Library and Matthew de Abaitua
The Dinner Party Wars by Mathew de Abaitua

Dolly Dolly
Death, Taxes and the Fireplace
(being a story concerning love above all)

Belbury Poly and Lawrence Norfolk
His Name was Legion by Sir Andrew Caldecott

29/01/10 (Live)
Radio Joy
The Haunted Beach by Johny Brown

Mordant Music
The Bells Will Sound Forever by Thomas Ligotti

Vanessa Daou
Love Among the Shadowed Things

John Foxx
When You Walk Through Me

Posted by mark at 09:12 PM | TrackBack

January 06, 2010

"They killed their mother": Avatar as ideological symptom


Watching Avatar, I was continually reminded of Zizek's observation in First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, that the one good thing that capitalism did was destroy Mother Earth. "There's no green there, they killed their mother," we are solemnly informed at one point. Avatar is in some ways a reversal of Cameron's Aliens. If the "bug-hunt" in Aliens was, as Virilio argued, a kind of rehearsal for the megamachinic slaughter of Gulf War 1, then Avatar is a heavyhanded eco-sermon and parable about US misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. (What's remarkable about Avatar is how dated it looks. In the scenes of military engagement, it is as if 80s cyberpunk confronts something out of Roger Dean or the Myst videogames; Cameron's vision of military technology has not moved on since Aliens) At the end of the film, it is the human corporate and military interests who are described as "aliens". But this is a film without any trace of the alien. Like most CGI extravaganzas, it flares on the retina but leaves few traces in the memory. Greg Egan finds little to admire in Avatar, but he does defer to its technical achievements: "mostly, the accomplishments of the visual designers and the army of technicians who've brought their conception to the screen appear pixel-perfect, and hit the spot where the brain says 'yes, this is real'." The cost of this, though, is that it is very difficult to be immersed in the film as fiction. It is more akin to a themepark ride, a late-capitalist "experience", than a film.

What we have in Avatar is another instance of corporate anti-capitalism such as I discussed in Capitalist Realism in relation to Wall-E. Cameron has always been a proponent of Hollywood anti-capitalism: stupid corporate interests were the villains in Aliens and Terminator 2 as they are in Avatar. Avatar is Le Guin-lite, a degraded version of the scenario that Le Guin developed in novels such as The Word For World Is Forest, The Dispossessed and City Of Illusions, but stripped of all Le Guin's ambivalence and intelligence. What is foreclosed in the opposition between a predatory technologised capitalism and a primitive organicism, evidently, is the possibility of a modern, technologised anti-capitalism. It is in presenting this pseudo-opposition that Avatar functions as an ideological symptom.

No primitivist cliche is left untouched in Cameron's depiction of the Na'vi people and their world, Pandora. These elegant blue-skinned noble savages are at one with their beautiful world; they are Deleuzean Spinozists who recognise that a vital flow pervades everything; they respect natural balance; they are adept hunters, but, after they kill their prey they thank its "brother spirit"; the trees whisper with the voices of their revered ancestors. (Quite why skirmishes with the Na'vi and their bows and arrows should have prompted Steven Lang's grizzled colonel into Apocalypse Now-like disquisitions on how Pandora made for is his worst experience in war, is unclear.) "There's nothing we have that they want," concludes Sam Worthington's Jake Sully of the Na'vi. Yet the Na'vi predictably seduce Sully, who quickly "forgets everything" about his former life on earth (about which we learn almost nothing, beyond the fact that he is a marine who got injured in the course of battle) and embraces the wholeness of the Na'vi way of life. Sully attains wholeness through his avatar Na'vi body in a double sense: first, because the avatar is able-bodied, and, secondly, because the Na'vi are intrinsically more "whole" than the (self-)destructive humans. Sully, the marine who is "really" a tree-hugging primitive, is a paradigm of that late capitalist subjectivity which disavows its modernity. There's something wonderfully ironic about the fact that Sully's - and our - identification with the Na'vi depends upon the very advanced technology that the Na'vi's way of life makes impossible.

But a telling tic in the film is the repeated compulsion to explain the persistence of (physical) wounds among the human characters. Given the level of technology in the film's 2051, both Sully's useless legs and the colonel's scars could easily have been repaired, and the script goes out of its way to say why the two characters they remain disabled and maimed respectively: in Sully's case, it's because he can't afford the medical treatment; in the colonel's, it's because he "likes to be reminded of what he's up against". Such explanations are clearly unconvincing - the narratively underdetermined wounds can only be explained as libidinal residue which the film cannot fully digest into its digital Imaginary. The wounds prevent the disavowal of modern subjectivity and technology which Avatar attempts at the very same moment that the film invites us to admire it as a technological spectacle.

If we are to escape from the impasses of capitalist realism, if we are to come up with an authentic and genuinely sustainable model of green politics (where the sustainability is a matter of libido, not only of natural resources), we have to overcome these disavowals. There is no way back from the matricide which was the precondition for the emergence of modern subjectivity. To quote one of my favourite passages in First As Tragedy: "Fidelity to the communist Idea means that, to repeat, Arthur Rimbaud, ... we should remain absolutely modern and reject the all too glib generalization whereby the critique of capitalism morphs into the critique of 'modern instrumental reason' or 'modern technological civilization'." The issue is, rather, how modern technological civilization can be organised in a different way.

Posted by mark at 07:45 PM | TrackBack

Dialogue with Graham Harman

After reading Capitalist Realism, Graham Harman had a few questions for me. I present our email dialogue below.

    Graham: We agree that imaginative failure is the problem. But my question is as follows: is the Left sufficiently imaginative right now? One of the reasons I shy away from political discussions in our philosophical circles is that they seem to be so awfully narrow. There is only one socially acceptable political position: not only the Left, but a Left devoted to Revolution, with everything else packaged as compromised "reform" that merely preserves the awful system it attempts to shape. But one of the reasons I love Zizek so much as a political writer (despite being nowhere close to him on the political spectrum) is that he refuses the "beautiful soul" position and wants actual politics rather than what your book rightly calls the hysterical extreme protest gestures that don't really expect their demands to be met. I like Zizek's call for finite, real demands rather than "infinite" ones, which merely allow the ruling powers to say "ah yes, wouldn't it be great if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not." I think Zizek made this point about Bush's reaction to the Iraq War protests: "Isn't this great? That's what we are fighting for: the freedom for Iraqis to protest just like this." And you're right in your book that protests become a kind of carnivalesque background noise that don't change anything.

I don't disagree with anything here. The Left hasn't been sufficiently imaginative, and I take it that the Jameson/Zizek formula that's so central to Capitalist Realism - it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism - was an admission of that failure. But it also pointed to the ways in which the conditions for new thinking just haven't been in place. The problem isn't imagination itself; the failure of imagination was a symptom of real impasses.
I also agree that the opposition between revolution and reform has become a facile commonplace, a kind of religious doctrine which we are required to pay lip service to. One of the reasons I'm interested in Nick Srnicek's work is that he is trying to think of alternatives to this binary by looking at how sustainable political change actually happens.
One problem with the reform-revolution binary - and I think this is absolutely relates to the point about finite versus infinite demands - is that it sets the bar so ridiculously high, such that anything short of a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society will count as a failure. The right doesn't have this problem; it has concrete and determinate aims - but achieving those aims actually allowed it to achieve a total switch in the system that governs social reality. This was more insidious than the Revolution which dominates the old Left (lack of) imagination - certain events, such as the Miners Strike in the UK, were clearly crucial, both for their symbolic and for their practical effects, but the neoliberals fought an attritional campaign, waged on many fronts
over a long period of time.

    Graham: On a related note, you identify capitalist realism with a jaded, critical distance. The odd thing is that I feel much the same about the going-for-broke calls for "Revolution." They seem so little in touch with concrete issues and conditions. By calling for Revolution they take a position of moral superiority that is unlikely to be tested (I don't expect a Revolution to occur, and neither do they when you get right down to it).

Yes. Revolution - particularly amongs the academic Left - has too often become something one is committed to in the same sense that one has a particular aesthetic orientation or group affiliation. We criticise positions for being "too reformist" without really thinking that there is anything much more than an academic parlour game at stake. Because the discussions are detached from credible, determinate proposals, they are part of the end of history rather than an alternative to it. As Alex Williams has rightly argued, the differences between, say, Deleuze and Badiou mean a lot in continental philosophy, but they don't have any purchase politically in the lack of any agents corresponding to these positions.

    Graham: And more concretely... Is it really the case that Frederic Jameson is more imaginative than, say, Steve Jobs? Sure, Steve Jobs is rich. And he has a whole marketing apparatus to pitch his products. But don't you love those products? I do. My life has been tangibly improved by Macintosh computers, iPods, and soon iPhones (once I rise above my current preschool student skill level with them). Isn't there a danger in whitewashing all products that get sold to consumers as a kind of equally vapid capitalist landscape?

I'm not sure Jameson would say that he is more imaginative than Jobs. One of the best aspects of Jameson - and Zizek for that matter - is that he has never given up on what for me is the crucial Marxist idea that an authentic anti-capitalism must develop out of capitalism at its most modern and modernizing. There are some rousing passages in both First As Tragedy, Then As Farce and Valences Of The Dialectic which reiterate this commitment. And Jameson's essay on "Wal-Mart as Utopia" (also in Valences) is a tremendous attempt to think in this way, against the moralizing and agragrian tendencies in certain stripes of anti-capitalism. Anti-capitalism has to struggle over modernization, not reject it.
The problem with any attempt to posit an anti-capitalism opposed to IPhones and IPods is not only that it invites accusations of inconsistency - here we all are, fermenting anti-capitalist discontent on the internet - but that it surrenders the inorganic - and therefore also libido - to capitalism. For me, the crucial discovery of modernist theory and art is that libido is inorganic: as everyone from Freud through to Eistenstein and Burroughs have recognised, lbido montages, it cuts and pastes, it's no respecter of organic wholeness.

    Graham: Another thought... You're surely right about the jaded postmodernist pastiche of dead forms, and I love your reference to Eliot and Bloom and how the tradition is dead unless it is brought back to life in the here-and-now, and thus reinvented and reconfigured. My question is whether the dreaded predicament is really specific to "late capitalism." There have been numerous jaded periods of pastiche in the past, such as the shallow Hellenism of the Alexandrian period, the various fin-de-siècle periods, etc. I tend to see this more as a recurrent stage in the life cycle of civilizations than as the dangerous symptom of a capitalist dead end.

That's a good question. But the point is not that post-Fordist capitalism's tendency towards pastiche and recapitulation is unique or unprecedented. It's rather to counter the image of capitalism - presented by capitalism itself, as it were - as ceaselessly inventive, mutant force. What I wanted to draw attention to was the curious phenonemon whereby the kinds of social and economic instability peculiar to post-Fordism correlate with stasis and retrospection at the cultural level.

    Graham: At first I was worried about your remarks on Cobain, because they painted a picture of how we are all trapped in the system, including Cobain himself. This suggested the hopeless sort of logic that one finds in correlationism: "there's no way outside the closed circle of thought." And even if Cobain was on MTV and sold a lot of records, is it really true that he didn't jar the system at all? Sure, record companies and merchandizers were able to appropriate Nirvana, but did they really do so without being changed in some way by the exercise? Is capitalist realism really that all-powerful?

I think what was unique and interesting about Cobain and Generation X, the step they took on from punk, was in starting from the awareness that everything was commodified, contained. It was as if Nirvana began where the Pistols had ended, with Rotten's moment of disgust and despair at Winterland: "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Any jarring to the system that they caused was of an Althusserian kind - it consisted in demonstrating the omniphagic power of the System itself. Nevermind is saturated with reflexive impotence: "Here we are now, entertain us", "I know it's wrong, but what can I do?" An almost cosmic sense of uselesness, inertia, lassitude: "I feel stupid and contagious."
At the same time, I agree that the emphasis on the omnipotent power of commodification is not helpful. That becomes another religiose notion. Everything is commodifiable; as Lyotard insisted in Libidinal Economy, there is no pure subversive region immune to the commodity form. But commodities aren't just commodities. Something of this debate was at stake in the (successful) campaign to get Rage Against The Machine to be the Christmas number one here. It doesn't matter that Rage are a Sony act and that the corporations win either way; or, rather, if that does matter, it is only one dimension of what is happening. What you have with the X Factor single is not just something that makes money, but whose sole raison d'etre is to make money. People bought into the Rage campaign because they wanted something more from culture than that. In a way, it's a nostalgia for older forms of repressive desublimation! But, given how conservative the Restoration has become, this is not nothing.

    Graham: In any case, I hope your book shakes things up a bit, because I'm not just finding neo-liberal civilization stale (though less sale than you obviously do). I'm also finding staleness in the Leftist discourse of whatever post-continental philosophy is called. In our circles it is now possible simply to shout "Revolution!" without context or explanation in the middle of a philosophical article and somehow be seen as having taken a serious political position. I've seen several cases of this lately. Isn't the very notion of the Revolution ripe for some re-imagination? Take Badiou, for instance-- one of the great heroes of the Leftist element in our circles. Are people really shaken up politically by reading Badiou, or does he not simply provide more evidence for them that: "yes, I was right all along"? I'm not seeing enough evidence of people allowing their political positions to be falsified. It's just a lot of fuzzy slogans about revolution and neo-liberalism, and the range of acceptable politics is suffocatingly narrow. Don't people have any smart conservative friends? They ought to get some. It broadens your world and really challenges you to think. Otherwise, you simply get a party game where everyone is trying to outflank everyone in one direction. Your thoughts?

I like the line you quote from Latour in Prince Of Networks about politicians being the best we can hope for. Some might take that as quetist resignation in line with Latour's apparently neoliberal politics. But I take it as the right kind of realism, and an incitement to start with the problems of institutionalisation and organisation instead of regarding them as some Fall from the moment of revolutionary rapture. No doubt, the Cultural Revolution of the 60s to which Badiou pledges allegiance had to happen - but we can't keep acting as if the problem is a centralizing State or a Stalinist Party structure. At the same time, no simple return to a centralizing State or a strong party is possible either - which is why so many of Zizek's political provocations amount to what Alex Williams calls "comedy Stalinism". In many ways, I would argue that the "politics of the event" articulated (albeit very differently, of course) by Deleuze and Badiou is an elaborate apologetics for an actual political failure. The injunctions to keep faith with the event, the claim that Chronos doesn't matter, only the aeonic event: both are a kind of theology of consolation, akin to Paul's shifting in position when it became clear that Christ was not going to return immediately. Obligatory affirmationism conceals a surreptitious melancholy.
For me, Badiou's value lies in his rousing encouragement for anti-capitalist struggle, his contempt for "democratic materialism" (the postmodern ontology of bodies and languages), what Peter Hallward characterises as the rejection of worldliness, and his periodisation of what we are living through as a moment of Restoration. But the central problem with Badiou's philosophy as I understand it is its retrospective quality. Everything has already happened. It is literally preaching to the converted. The irony, of course, is pointed to in your question - in that it is hard to imagine anyone actually being converted by Badiou. But it is possible to imagine Zizek converting people; indeed, he had that effect on me, rousing me from my neoliberal slumber.
No doubt Badiou describes a certain kind of militant phenomenology... but what use are these descriptions? All anyone can say is, "yes, that's what it's like to attain a militant subjectivity". But it seems to me that the important questions are how to engender that kind of subjectivity. What practical steps can be taken? Again, that's what I appreciate in Nick Srnicek's approach, the way that he instrumentalizes actor-network theory for leftist purposes. These questions are key: what are the actors in any particular network? How can these actors be affected? How can dominant networks be decomposed and new networks installed? The focus on this style of thinking in Prince Of Networks meant that, from my point of view, the book was buzzing with political potentials in a way that so much 'political philosophy' is not - all the more so because it wasn't explicitly political.

Posted by mark at 05:43 PM | TrackBack

Some answers to Graham


Graham raises some interesting questions in respect of Capitalist Realism:

    One of the critical remarks in the book is that academics are now crushed with bureaucratic paperwork obligations. As a result, the competitive injunctions of neoliberalism, when imported into academia, have paradoxically increased the worthless red tape that capitalism was supposed to eliminate.

    He’s definitely right in some way, though I guess my view on it is a bit more complicated. For one thing, Mark is writing from a British context, and my sense is that it’s far worse in the UK. Not only does everyone in British academia seem to be strangled by evaluative paperwork, but the British system is of course much more centralized when it comes to funding. There is obviously no such thing as a national research assessment for American universities. We simply have far too many institutions– thousands of them, and they are of too many differing levels of faculty expectations. There is a broad mix of public, private, religious, and even expatriate American universities. And of course even our public universities are organized on the state rather than national level. So, in the American context there is not the periodic nationwide Angst found in Britain, in which careers might instantly vaporize as the result of someone’s outside assessment. Even the question of “who will be the evaluators this time?” seems to cause ulcers in the UK, and understandably so.

    For another thing, I’m one of those who actually likes to write annual reports, progress reports, grant proposals, etc. They do me a world of good, and neither are they entirely extra-academic… I usually gain much clarity about my own projects from these exercises.

    In fact, my big complaint is that no one seems to read the damn things! Never once have my Department Chairs given me written feedback on an Annual Report, even though they are required to do so by University policy.

I'm not in a position to comment directly on the experience of working in American universities, and I would defer to others who have worked there if they find that their experiences do not match mine in the UK; and I certainly do agree that, instead of the long-forgotten Third Way, Britain has reached a worst-of-all-worlds scenario, in which a former centralized bureaucracy has reinvented itself as a metastatizing rhizome, and a simulated market has been used to impose hyper-precarious conditions on workers. But my feeling would be that the issue of centralized funding only inflects things slightly differently in the UK and the US. As I point out in the book, funding in Britain is increasingly 'decentralized' in any case - in the college that I worked, it was the soon-to-be-abolished Learning and Skills Council's directives which were used as a pretext for "deleting" the philosophy and religious studies provision. Furthermore, the institutional pathologies I discuss in Capitalist Realism arise from decentralization. What I am pointing to is a situation in which the intermittent "inspection" gives way to an audit culture in which evaluation becomes embedded into the everyday fabric of work. In such conditions of generalized anxiety, one is almost nostalgic for the former "periodic nationwide angst". Decentralization reaches its properly Kafkaesque conclusion when everyone becomes their own auditor, all of the time. The situation that Graham describes - no-one reading progress reports - is surely routine. Their addressee, after all, is no-one - the no-one that is the market Stalinist big Other. The report, like the door in Kafka's parable, was meant only for you.

I should point out right away that most of the experiences I recount in Capitalist Realism didn't take place in universities, but in a Further Education college teaching 16-19 year olds. My impression is that the situation in British universities is bad and worsening, but it is as nothing compared to what is happening in Britain in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Here, bear in mind, teachers and lecturers have up to thirty hours of teaching to do every week. If on top of this, you are required to continually record what you are doing and "evaluate" your practice, the strain is unbearable.

I grant that some benefits can occasionally be derived from performing some of these bureaucratic operations; but this is an idiosyncratic side-effect of procedures which are universally imposed. (I should point out something that I don't think is that clear in the book, namely that I'm not opposed to bureaucracy per se, only its lunatic excrescences. A coming political task, I think, will be to invent new kinds of bureaucracy.) It could in fact be argued that the only possible subversion of auditing procedures is to perform them in the way that Graham does, with sincerity, given that the expected situation is cynical compliance ("I know this is nonsense, but nevertheless I have to along with it"). My team leader and I tried to treat bureaucracy in that way for a while, hyperconforming with all the auditing procedures, but eventually I snapped. For one thing, we were facing a situation in which while, our wages were going down in real terms, we were nevertheless being asked to take on an increasing workload of additional "administration". There's a kind of fallacy involved in applying neo-Taylorist practices to education, which is that they are cost-free. They are certainly cost-free to the employer, who gets to contract out their auditing processes to their worker; but they are not cost-free to the worker, who, not only find themselves doing more work for the same (or less) money. But their biggest cost to the worker is in energy. Energy that could have gone into reading about one's subject, preparing lessons or even simple convalescence was instead diverted into these auditing activities. Far from improving performance, far from these activities being merely a waste of time, the very fact of doing them makes it harder to perform your job properly.


Graham notes that there is still a tendency for "non-performing academics" to get away with it. No doubt this is true, and will probably always be true, in any system - and it's evident to everyone now that is not only in the academy or public services, but also in business. There are then two questions: how successfully do auditing regimes root out poorly performing teachers? And how efficient is it to impose these procedures on all teachers? For me, it's clear that poor teachers are not rooted out by these auditing procedures which - by definition - do not register how good you are doing your job, but how good you are at representing your practice according to the aesthetic protocols of the audit. Some of the most inept teachers I know were very good at filling in the forms - why wouldn't they be? And in terms of university work, we have to consider the massively conservative effect that initiatives such as the Research Assesment Exercise and its successor produce by their sheer existence alone - they have empowered precisely the "careerist sandbaggers" that Graham rightly derides in Prince Of Networks, producing a climate of anxiety which favours unchallenging work.

Graham makes another important point:

    In the USA there are plenty of hideous aspects of applying the business model to everything. But there is also a freewheeling “entrepreneurship” aspect to it, in which capitalism doesn’t just mean number-crunching management, but also means a free-for-all in which ambitious outsiders may well come from nowhere to win the day.

But much of my critique comes from the perspective of entrepreneurship. It is precisely the tendency towards entrepreneurial thinking that is blocked by the imposition of these neoliberal initiatives. Frewheeling entrepreneurs aren't filling in performance reviews. This is one of the supposed ironies I identify in Capitalist Realism. I say "supposed" because it is crucial not to accept neoliberalism on its own terms - as if its true aim was delivering better conditions for the entrepreneurial spirit. This is a cover for its real project, which you don't have to be a vulgar Marxist to recognise is a redistribution of wealth and resources to the rich. (In the year that I was made redundant - for "economic" reasons - the college Principal - now calling himself a Chief Executive Officer, naturally - was earning well over 100 grand.) The real aim of neoliberal bureaucratic initiatives in education is to (1) make a case for increased managerialism (2) weaken and demoralise workers and (3) engender more "critical compression" in the public sphere.

Note that I'll be discussing these issues with Matthew Fuller and Alberto Toscano in a session on Capitalist Realism and NuBureaucracy at Goldsmiths on Friday 12th February, 2-4 p.m.

Posted by mark at 12:05 PM | TrackBack