Thursday, July 19, 2012

“What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!”

We'll leave this chap in reserve for a moment.

So, the National Gathering came and went. I wasn’t in attendance for most of it: I was out of town. (Anyhow, the Philly Radical Convergence was running concurrently, and I would’ve gone to the latter, circumstances permitting.) With NatGat and the “return of Occupy” came the return of the utterly predictable ways by which Occupy is discussed in official and unofficial media outlets. No demands, no organization, etc. etc. One writer at The Guardian declares, simply, that the “The Philadelphia national gathering reveals Occupy’s law of entropy.” The reason he gives is simple: Occupy’s mode of consensus formation actually spawns dissensus. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—dissensus (he calls it “conflict”) is the condition of the political—but, alas, the movement lacks an instituted mode of regulating conflicting (what he calls) “rights” to public speech.  No durable structure, in short, regulates or economizes the political space of Occupy. Without this police-function, the polis of Occupy dissipates into endless and frustrating quasi-polemical debate, leaving as its trace a utopian dream of consensus without friction. A good Rancierean Arun Gupta is not. He thus concludes, “for the idealistic core of Occupy, its original flowering was like a Fourth of July firework display: something dramatic and beautiful, but ultimately ephemeral.”

It’s a sympathetic article, but the demand remains the same: Occupy, turn into something! Don’t be ephemeral! And, protestations to the contrary, that’s kind of what NatGat was all about: building a “blueprint,” a “vision,” and so on. Articulating a sense of the social that is, a sense of the social that should be, and a means of realizing this sense-to-come. Not for nothing, of course, was NatGat held through the 4th of July, and the drafters of the vision statement followed their patriotic forebears admirably. The document that they’ve left us is confused. After first declaring that “our process itself was [is?] our message,” the document then evacuates considerations of process in order to maintain the vision in a kind of utopian purity: “a vision points to the ‘what,’ not the ‘how.’” Moreover, as a means of disarming dissensus—or, alternately, as a means of forming consensus—points of vision are compiled and the number of people backing each point is listed. Enumeration disarming dissensus, police for the political. (Of course, dissensus still plays out across the content of the document; many of the demands are irreconcilable.) In short, the document is structured by the desire to produce a durable cognitive-sensual structure for action, but the modality of positive construction simply results in a lifeless tally in which all issues, rendered qualitatively commensurate, differ only in the magnitude of voices saying “Yea” to each proposed item. The quest for some kind of durable presence—if not as a state or a party than as a sense, a “vision”—has simply reproduced the hackneyed forms of liberal census taking (and consensus making).

This is in part an effect of political subjectivation exceeding available textual-generic resources: we need to come up with new ways of writing such that the representation of the polis is adequate to its democratic coming-to-presence. (Anyone who has ever tried collectively drafting a document knows what I mean—the end result always represents a certain betrayal.) But there are other discursive resources that a) refuse the conservative demand of institutional/organization/ideological durability and b) maintain a relation of adequation between political presentation and political re-presentation. I’m talking about the chant. After all, if our process is our message, we might as well look to the public speech genre with which activists are intimately familiar in order to see what our vision of democracy is or might be. And, let’s be clear, if the textual product of NatGat is rather stale and boring and liberal, the actual political event of NatGat—bodies arriving together, making space, fucking up our sense of the city—was as vibrant as any Occupy event. So, it’s to this repertoire of chants that I now want to turn in order to interrupt and look beyond the liberal form of consensus formation enshrined in the primary piece of NatGat’s textual archive.

Occupy’s repertoire of protest chants reveals most plainly the multiple and irreducibly conflictual strands of political thinking and practice that compose it. Each chant—through its imagined addressee, its content, its mode of articulation—draws on a particular lineage of practices that traverse anarchism, laborism, civil disobedience movements, and so on. Moreover, chants tend to encode, as their conditions of possibility, the precise social space from which they are articulated. Certain chants only become useful or usable as a march interacts with a space in a given manner—in an anarchist, CD, liberal, or laborist manner, for instance (this list is hardly exhaustive). For instance, “Whose streets? Our streets!” really only makes sense as a forceful claim when the march is not permitted. If you’re screaming “Our streets,” you’re probably not at a union-led action, for illegality marks one condition of possibility for the chant’s efficacy. At the other end of the spectrum is the utterly bland standby, “Hey hey, ho ho, xyz has got to go!” The chant could come from anywhere; it doesn’t entail a particular relation to space, except, maybe, the non-space of the liberal public sphere. We could keep going.  At the level of content, “A- / Anti- / Anticapitalista!” articulates an anarchist politics by eschewing a determinate addressee in favor of self-naming: there is no assumed “you,” no audience, just us, autonomically singing for ourselves. In terms of space, “Anticapitalista!” assumes the production of a temporary autonomous zone. More of a dance than a chant, “Anticapitalista” requires space for bodies-in-motion: clapping hands, jumping up-and-down, the beating of drums. It also produces (in the mouths of Occupiers in the anglophone-dominant public sphere of the US) an articulation, via language choice, with a globalized field of anticapitalist struggles. In short, chants can tell us a lot about social movements: not just what they want, but how they imagine, live, and produce their (sense of) space.

Some chants, however, refuse to make their political desires transparent. It’s in these absurdist chants that we can recover the much-cited anarchist roots of Occupy. The politics of “A- / Anti- / Anticapitalista!” are probably pretty clear to the onlooker caught in her car as demonstrators dance by; the political import of “I- / I need- / I need a piece of pizza!” is surely less clear. What would a good Habermasian say to the communicative irrationality of nonsense meta-chants such as “Three word chant! Three word chant!” or “Call! Response! Call! Response!” (see Graeber, Direct Action, 417). No doubt, such nonsense chants serve an immediate function for the marchers: marching is tiresome, intense, and marchers’ affect oscillates between exhilaration and boredom. Anticapitalism can be monotonous, but its important not to let this monotony show. These absurd chants thus enable a kind of affective recuperation: without leaving a vacuum, the specific target of the march is vacated of intense intention; at the same time, the humor of these chants produces a new kind of jolt, a different kind of intensity. The functionality of such chants for group formation should be clear: as ironic in-jokes, they produce a sense of belonging, of knowingness—one winks with one’s comrades. And this group is formed as a democratic, creative assembly. On one hand, the condition of possibility for such absurdist chants is the non-hierarchical nature of the march; no earnest march leader or chant master is going to start yelling, “Three word chant! Three word chant!” On the other hand, such chants, as jokes, can’t really be planned; they contingently bubble up as an effect of someone’s, anyone’s, creativity. During actions, twitter feeds buzz with the repetition of funny or ironic chants. The author can’t really be cited; there’s no author but the ephemeral creativity of the democratic anyone. As Graeber puts it, such chanting works through a “kind of democratization of effervescence.” We might also say that these chants work to make democracy effervescent, for many chants, of course, do not get picked up, repeated, shouted out--chants bubble up, contingently and randomly. Nothing guarantees—no census taking or consensus making—that an individual’s offering will be repeated save the intensifying acclaim of the demos that picks it up. Such an acclamatory model is, of course, starkly opposed to the kind of enumerative democracy of liberalism. (One finds here an ally in Schmitt in his Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy: “The will of the people can be expressed just as well and perhaps better through acclamation…than through the statistical apparatus that has been constructed with such meticulousness…)

So, these chants a) are functional for the continuance of a scene of democratic presentation; b) take a democratic assumption—that anyone can creatively present the demos—as a condition of their production; and c) take another democratic assumption—that others can decide in the immediate affectivity of the moment what presents democracy as it is—as a condition of their circulation. All these points are linked: the marching democracy endures (in its intensity, in its affectivity) by democratically distributing responsibility for (the effort of) making the demos appear. The “democratization of effervesence,” then, actually serves to ensure the democracy’s endurance. It’s in these emergent, contingent, ephemeral spaces, I suggest, that we should look to find adequate (re)presentations of democracy—what it demands, what it desires. I now want to read one (apparently absurd) chant to see what it can tell us about the coming democracy.

It’s straight-up nonsense. It began as a sign (written as a chant) and, in time, after it circulated as a picture and through twitter, was briefly enacted as a chant: “What do we want? Time travel! When do we want it? It’s irrelevant!” In case the joke isn’t clear, the chant-form it’s riffing on goes, “What do we want? X! When do we want it? Now!” Obviously, the time-travel chant works by noting that the realization of its demand—the traversability of time—renders the precise moment at which the demand is articulated a matter of indifference. The moment that one can travel through time, the precise moment when time travel was desired or realized as a possibility becomes just another moment through which one can travel. Time is thus derealized as a meaningful organizer of being in the world, for one could circulate through time in an atemporal fashion.  The “now” of the revolutionary demand loses its punctuality.

So, what’s at stake here? Well, for one, any theory of revolution is necessarily a theory of temporality, perhaps even a philosophy of history. Revolution is supposed to inaugurate a new order of time—shooting at clocks and all that other claptrap we’re all ready to cite from Benjamin. But, of course, revolutions are rarely punctual—the “Now!” that articulates the scene of revolutionary desire and activity requires, for its felicity, a labor of making that revolution, of bringing it about, of making it endure. Only then will the revolution unleashed in a given Now have actually unleashed a revolution. From the perspective of the revolutionary punctum, then, and as Derrida shows of the Declaration of Independence, all revolution exists in the future anterior—as a “what will have been” in order to render the inaugural moment of revolutionary action felicitous.

But that’s only if revolution is supposed to endure, if the “now” of our revolutionary desire is supposed to turn—revolve and evolve—into something. The chant above suggests something different about democratic revolution. The aim of revolution is not to inaugurate a new temporary, not to produce a structure that can endure. The aim is rather to transform the articulation of a demand into an effervescent happening that needn’t matter, that needn’t found a new regime—a punctual demand that endures by dissolving endurance’s value and desirability. We might say, then, that the non-enduring temporality of democracy consists in the capacity of the demos to traverse time as it will—to make and unmake the given as a sign of the effervescence of the will that once willed that given. Hegel hits on this radical effervescence in his critique of the French Revolution; he describes it as simply negativity, the “fury of destruction.” Critiquing indeterminate (or infinite or absolute) freedom as non-phenomenalizable and hence inherently negative, he writes, “This is why the people, during the French Revolution, decoyed once more the institutions they had themselves created, because all institutions are incompatible with the abstract self-consciousness of equality.” We're back to Gupta's "firework display," noted above, except Hegel doesn't see this "ultimately ephemeral" revolution "as dramatic and beautiful." Turn into something, Hegel says, or you'll turn into a furious nothing; turn into something, says Gupta, or you'll turn into an aesthetic spectacle, a meaningless burst of light and color. Following the time-travel chant, however, we might say that it is the durational temporality of any institution that inhibits the demos from making new time, from becoming democratically and freely effervescent. Ultimately, the time-travel of revolution does not consist in willing a new time once and once only; there will be no more Year Ones. Or--and this is the same thing--there will be as many of them as there are people.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Souls without Work: On Post-Fordist Labor and Student Debt

The soul is now at work. This is the refrain of a certain set of post-Marxists—Bifo, Virno, Negri, etc—who query the paradigm of labor central to post-Fordist capitalism. Affective laborers, intellectual laborers, the cognitariat: for these new figures of labor, work becomes more than ever the ontological substratum of life. No longer is labor a heteronomous necessity. Rather, the incorporation of cognition and affection into the labor process renders that which we preserved as the human fully immanent to production. The organic composition of capital thus undergoes a dramatic mutation. Indeed, it is unclear if the analytics of constant and variable capital have any purchase any longer, insofar as brains are directly plugged into the machine. A thrilling narrative: Marxian species-being may erupt, at any moment, from the new centers of capitalist control, insofar as the heteronomy of capitalist coordination and command seems superfluous to the labor process. We’re already autonomous, if only we knew it.

I’ve always had problems with this narrative, and for a few reasons. The concern I want to address here relates to the formation of the cognitariat—that is, the apparatus that shapes the cognitive labor who realizes herself at the Google campus. The high theorists of post-Fordism tend to take the immanentization of cognition and affect into production as an accomplished fact: the cognitive factory calls upon a worker, who appears and is instantaneously enfolded into the social-productive fabric of the firm. That’s not necessarily untrue, but to focus solely on the unit of production elides the total cycle of social reproduction. At what point in the circuit of capital is this labor power formed? If capital has incorporated the soul into its labor process, where is labor power ensouled? Following Dalla Costa and Selma James on the social factory—a concept of course set to work by the line of post-Marxism I am critiquing—I want to suggest that cognitive laborers are ensouled outside of the actual unit of production. The composition of capital today presumes that the worker, even before she sets foot in the cognitive factory, has achieved a high level of technical competency, technical here including affective and intellectual skills. The level of presumed technical skill is, moreover, far higher than that which would previously have been presumed; that is, companies today comparatively invest less time in skilling their workers, in forming labor power, and so investing in variable capital. The site of investment in technical skill has been displaced to the cycle of reproduction, and this displacement of the site of investment has entailed a displacement of the subject responsible for such investments. Job skilling—or, in a post-Fordist paradigm, ensouling—now takes place outside of the site of production, at the university, and it is the student who is responsible for the costs of ensouling herself.

Putting this in Marx’s terms: The circuit of productive capital has externalized investment in variable capital. Marx describes the circuit of productive capital thusly: P (MP+L) - C' - M' - C' - P'. Productive capital, the means of production and labor, yields a commodity, the surplus value of which is realized as money, which is reinvested in more commodities to enabled expanded production. Over time, we have witnessed the transformation of the composition of productive capital P (means of production + labor). Between P and P', the capital that the firm invests in L has declined (human resources mumbo jumbo to the side) as the costs of valorizing L have been externalized and foisted upon the individual laborer. The point is thus not simply that variable capital tends to decrease in favor of constant capital in the organic composition of capital, as has been classically demonstrated regarding machination of production. The opposite obtains, I think: while the level of investment in enhancing L, in forming variable capital, might decrease for the firm, it remains the same (or increases) at a social level. But this investment is displaced from the circuit of production to the cycle of reproduction. Neoliberal governance intersects with this mutation to ensure that the subject responsible for this investment is the individuated student-laborer, not the collective social subject or the state. Prior to insertion within the circuit of productive capital, then, we have already worked, and worked on ourselves. We make ourselves potential-for-capital, to-hand should a capitalist decide to let us realize our values in the labor process.

The hyper-capitalized, neoliberal university is, ironically, a pre-capitalist economic form. It is a site in which (human) goods are valorized prior to incorporation within the circuit of capital—a valorization process presupposed by, but not immanent to, the processes of capitalist valorization and realization. I make this point so as to indicate the radical potentials that inhere in organizing around student debt. The one trillion dollars of debt confronting students in the U.S. indexes the displacement of the site and subject responsible for the formation of technical capacities required to valorize capital. The collapse of state schools has exacerbated this trend: if the state once absorbed part of the costs of the social valorization of labor power, the individual is now responsible, prior to entering the job market, for enhancing her technical skill set. Society—and especially the university—becomes a factory for souls. Yet, this does not mean that production has been rendered immanent to the social fabric. The one trillion of debt—a debt that is increasingly impossible to pay off—marks a yawning gap between individuated self-valorization (ensoulment, the increase in technical capacities) and the possibility of realizing these capacities through and for social production. There is a classical realization crisis taking place today, but it’s not one besetting big firms. Rather, it’s the neoliberal post-Fordist ensouled worker, the entrepreneurial self who invested first of all in herself, who cannot realize herself, her investment, her value, on the job market.

It’s this break—between the average technical capacity of an individual and her opportunity to set this capacity to work—that exposes how the cognitariat implies the precariat, how post-Fordism’s incorporation of the (pre-formed) human into labor processes implies its abandonment of large populations of would-be human workers. We need to catch up with all that this break implies. So far, student debt activism has adopted a rhetoric of the social contract: Students have indebted themselves with the understanding that they would be able to realize their investment in the labor market, that some agency would repair any break in the organic composition of social capital. This understanding is broadly Keynesian in its assumptions. But one trillion of debt for university education signifies, if nothing else proves it, capital’s movement beyond modalities of social-state embedding. The effect of neoliberal post-Fordism is not the putting-to-work of souls; or, at least, its broadest effects are irreducible to the 100,000 super-trained high-tech cats who generate 45989548 virtual ontologies before breakfast and signal our coming species-being. Rather, one trillion dollars of unresolvable debt is the halo of an immanent potentiality deprived of any means of achieving actuality, of potentiated souls unable to incarnate themselves in the social.

A new specter, then, haunts capitalism. The simplest point I want to make is this: A new student movement organized around unresolvable debt would have implications far beyond university financing. The break between auto-valorized variable capital and its ability to realize itself at work marks a crisis in the composition of capital. For this reason, the student debt movement has a generality and importance that extends beyond the university and could touch upon the general social terrain. The point is to make this articulation. Demands for debt forgiveness have provided a good slogan and inaugural program. However, when such demands are made on the state, we risk promoting a kind of retroactive Keynesianism; it might choose to perform a one-time absorption of the costs of social reproduction. This would leave the composition of capital mostly intact while simultaneously isolating the import of the student debt movement to the relationship between students and universities operating in a bad jobs climate. We need to stake out a position—cognitively and practically—in the broader terrain of social (re)production