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Kiel Hume, Four Micro-Interventions into Neoliberal Globalization

I. Spectacle and Theory’s Images

In 1936 Walter Benjamin published his widely read essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In it he ponders the new kinds of images available to the world, taking a curiously optimistic stance on the issue of film. He sees the world and politics becoming increasingly inaccessible, until “Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling” (Benjamin 236). Benjamin’s view of the revolutionary possibilities represented by the transformation of images and the earliest examples of spectacle can only seem naïve by our contemporary experience of what these changes have actually become. His essay poses fascism against communism, and the possibility of both to utilize the changes in visuality taking place in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, Benjamin doesn’t recognize (at least here anyway) the potential the new state of images represents for the forces of global capitalism.

Today we are only too familiar with the role the spectacle plays in our lives and the world. Far from the liberating possibilities imagined by Benjamin, the spectacle operates by an excess that fundamentally transforms the conditions of subjectivity; this is a process of “immense accumulation” of representation, of a visuality that is valued solely for its form and lacking all traces of content (or is it perhaps all content lacking any form?). Life and politics become static, aestheticized into “an object of contemplation” in which perceiving is taken as experiencing: “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 12). We must be careful, however, not to elevate this phenomenon to the realm of the metaphysical; this is a material reality that is abstracted and experienced spectacularly. For Debord, “spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life” (13), that is, a cultural and social experience based on accumulation, distance, and alienation.

While life becomes increasingly constricted by its penetration on all sides, the spectacle itself transforms. The spectacle is materialized as it enters reality, functioning beside and throughout all aspects of life before it is deified, transformed absolutely into Debord’s trinity of “society itself…a part of society…and a means of unification” (12). Yet, even at this point the process is not complete. Debord himself retheorizes the spectacle’s evolution into an integrated state (Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle 8), bringing to mind prevailing contemporary models of integrated business solutions, that is, making—in the most productive sense—connections in the name of efficiency where before there were none.   

But what has this to do with neo-liberal culture? To answer this I turn to another well known spectacle, yet one that is not generally characterized as such. Michel Foucault opens Discipline and Punish with the very public spectacle of the regicide’s torture and execution, noting the minutest details of bodily mortification and subjectification, both literal and symbolic. This disciplinary spectacle is quite different from Debord’s spectacle of global capital and accumulation, yet they are both concerned with transforming the body and mind at the very levels of subjectivity which one encounters and experiences the world. A spectacular reality is in many ways similar to Foucault’s notions of the panoptic society. The subject is still caught in a specifying spotlight, only added are sounds and images. Surveillance is not actually necessary as long she/he is constantly accessible to the images being projected into all corners of reality; in fact, the very principle of surveillance is reversed, since it is the subject of power who is now the viewer and no longer the viewed. The process of the spectacle’s hold over the subject is at once global in its totality, as well as completely individualizing, the ultimate corruption of democracy from which no individual is excluded, offering something for everyone, “such that all demands, all tastes are satisfied” (Bourdieu 68). The panoptic principle, transformed into a spectacular one, is ultimately an applied marketing model: the prison bars are replaced with the all-mediating image, the family television is the accepted way of encountering others, and the public is subsumed into the private.   

It is only by a process of separation (of individuals from one another, from their material and conceptual conditions for the (re)production of the political, economic and cultural world in which they live) that has been almost completely perfected that allows for today’s global inequalities to exist. Like Foucault’s spectacle, today’s is also disciplining and pacifying, a unidirectional flow of power that seeks out subjects in the everydayness of their lives. Indeed, this system places the entire weight of the world on each person’s shoulders, with seemingly no solidarity or collective strength to resist. The spectacle functions by virtue of one of neo-liberalisms primary goals: by assessing and accessing individuals while diluting the idea of people. Thus, resistance can only be possible by seeking out and encountering real human beings and their real struggles.

II. Subsumption and the State of Capital Accumulation

Marx characterizes the phase of primitive accumulation as that “which precedes capitalist accumulation; an accumulation which is not the result of the capitalist mode of production but its point of departure” (873, my emphasis). Thus primitive accumulation is a transitionary phase, a point of rupture with past forms of political and economic organization. Preceding capitalism but leading directly too it, primitive accumulation is the originary moment the effects of which allow for capitalism to proceed and thrive. More recently, Hardt and Negri stress a break with the past represented in what they see as an entirely new phase of accumulation. Arguing against the highs and lows of a cyclical theory of capital’s development, they instead envision us as entering a new period, a fracture leading to a new form of capitalism, or a form that is at least fundamentally transformed in its field of operation and exploitation. Marx also notes that primitive accumulation, this “process…which creates the capital-relation can be nothing other than the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his labour” (874). It would seem that the neo-liberal moment is one of revisiting the underlying notions of primitive accumulation, that is, of subsuming under capital those aspects of (global) society that have until recently fallen outside of the direct control of a capitalist mentality, further divorcing the world’s producers and laboring classes from the means of social—indeed, in some cases biological—(re)production and subsistence. This process today takes the form of neo-imperialism on the global scale and privatization domestically (though privatization can operate on an equally global or transnational level). If these assessments are correct, then a new “point of departure” is at hand in a new kind of primitive accumulation.    

The state’s role in this process is of central importance. David Harvey notes that the “chronic problems of overaccumulation of capital through expanded reproduction coupled with a political refusal to attempt any solution to these problems” has led to the current neo-liberal state mentality that if we just allow the market the freedom to regulate itself, it will at the same time resolve domestic economic and resulting social tensions. The question of overaccumulation, of what to do with bored capital (to put it crudely) is posed in capital’s own terms o
expansion and profitability. Th
e result is gluttonous amounts of accumulation channeled into the creation of new markets and domains of profitability, the desire to be able to sell absolutely everything to everyone. Of course new markets are not actually created (as if from thin air!) but rather are claimed from those existing aspects of society that are shared through state distribution. The accompanying result is a dismantling and subsumption of any and all social commons. Privatization allows for this new corporate owning of public goods and services, stripping the people of what they have traditionally owned collectively through the democratic state. The people find themselves continually engrossed within expanding networks of accumulation. The body’s conditions of existence increasingly exist within a realm firmly controlled by capital as scientific advances leading to cures are patented, and agribusiness’ bio-chemical sectors claim (legal!) ownership over the micro—genetic makeup—and macro—costs and subsequent distribution—aspects of the world’s food supply. Today advances that benefit humanity are quickly packaged and placed on a shelf too high for most of the world to reach.   

What then is the role of the state today if it has freed itself of responsibility toward its citizens? The state is by definition part of the world stage, an entity that is both national and transnational in its occupations (in both senses of the word) and actions. If the state bows to the demands of capital and allows capital to freely express itself throughout the globe, then are we really witnessing Hardt and Negri’s claim regarding “the full realization of the relationship between the state and capital” (236)? It seems that capital is the privileged party in this relationship: capital takes on more and more of the characteristics, capacities, and responsibilities of the state, while the state becomes more and more a material and ideological apparatus for the maintenance of capital’s freedom. There is a hideous irony in the American example (to take just one) of a state that shakes the world with its hegemonic weight in the name of its citizens’ safety and security, while healthcare and education, those very apparatuses of the (re)production of a productive citizenry, are sold off to the benefit of corporate profits and at the expense of those citizens whose well-being is supposedly of the utmost importance. Freed from the yoke of its own citizenry, what distinguishes the state from the corporation if both are merely concerned with their own protection, reproduction and expansion?

III. Power’s (Global) Sphere and the Crisis of Biopolitics

Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that ‘explains’ them, but rather because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims or objectives.
–Foucault, The History of Sexuality Vol.1, 95

Taking Foucault’s claim into account what can we say about globalization and neoliberal culture? If we know, or at least have an idea of what capital’s goal is in the current moment, then where do we begin to direct our theory or practice? If we understand that the “aims or objectives” are that of infinite accumulation, or perhaps a drive toward investing (in) every body and space on the globe with the hopes of extracting some type of return then what is there to say first?
The power relations functioning within globalization are a field of global corporeal relations; of bodies to one another, bodies to nations, bodies to corporations, and bodies to deprivation. The body, and its utility as a force productive and exploitable, is the site of both globalization’s generation and the constant threat of crisis. For a system with a goal of infinite accumulation, bodies must be effectively maintained to achieve maximum production. Sadly, however, the body’s productive capacities are often hindered by certain unproductive tendencies such as death and illness. When Foucault introduces biopolitics it is to theorize how power, traditionally concerned with the micro level of the singular body, expands to a macro level concerned with clusters of bodies: “Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended 244). This does not mean that the macro subsumes the micro, but rather is an extension to accommodate new and changing conditions. Biopower invests in populations insofar as to maintain and protect capital’s investment in that population.   

For it is the changing conditions in which the body finds itself early in industrial capitalism’s genesis that are at issue. The body, moving into a new system of capitalist and industrial relations (spatially and conceptually), finds itself amongst bodies as populations in and around urban centers representing complex new problems for power. Foucault locates the question of space and “control over relations between the human race, or human beings insofar as they are a species, insofar as they are living beings, and their environment, the milieu in which they live” (Foucault, Society Must be Defended 245) as central to biopolitical concerns; where and how people live, what relations they have to one another, and the conditions produced take on new importance for power.

It seems there is something of a crisis for capital in its relation to biopower. Biopower is a form of power that we can broadly attribute to the rise of capitalism, that is, of industrialization and urbanism and negative effects on populations. Here we have a number of crises that must be addressed, such as health problems due to working conditions and sanitation issues resulting from urbanism. Reforms must be made in the name of biopolitics to ensure the health and safety of populations; reproductive capacities must be secured. Yet, here is the crisis of biopolitics for capital: reforms disrupt the necessary flow and exploitation on which capital rests, disrupting the very mechanisms of an ever-increasing amount of return. The result is one of the primary factors behind the move towards globalization. As biopower begins to hinder capital, capital moves offshore to spaces not burdened by (biopolitical) labour reforms. Biopower and capital thus work for and against one another, are immanent in yet counterproductive to one another. While biopower ultimately manages bodies in their potential as productive forces, capital manages bodies as productivity and material output. A recent example of the crisis provoked by these two disciplinary mechanisms is the proposed Chinese labour reforms and the outrage voiced by U.S. corporations explored in a recent article in The New York Times (Barboza). Capital’s logic only distinguishes between addition and subtraction, losses and gains. While the biology of the producers can to some extent be taken into account for producing gains, the humanity of the producers will always equal a loss for capital.   

IV. Utopian Desire and a World without End

What do we do when Utopia, this critical “literary Golem” (211) to use Jameson’s characterization, this savior form that we create out of the dust and dirt of an ever increasing planet of slums, is co-opted and subsumed under neoliberal discourse? If the “proper function of its themes lay in critical negativity, that is in their function to demystify their opposite numbers” (Jameson 211), imaging what is not and what could be, then the discourse of neoliberalism endlessly esteems what is and what will be in the future as envisioned by capital. It seems that there are two kinds of utopia at work today: that of the neoliberal capitalists, who tell us that the current syste

m works, that it will only get better
and make life better over time; and then there is the narrative of the post-capitalist utopia, that capitalism will implode and the world will be set free to explore new, more equitable realities. This latter utopia is a break that can only be brought about with the efforts of those who are willing to work toward the unknown, in the direction of an uncharted geopolitical order. If, as Jameson suggests it is indeed easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism, then our task is to conceive the inconceivable and work, not towards a final goal, but towards a series of breaks that will lead us into the oblivion of an unshaped, unimagined future.

On the other hand, the first of these utopian narratives, the neoliberal capitalist version, is a teleological narrative: the world’s historical trajectory is firmly in place and building towards a time beyond time when capital will have solved all of the world’s problems (even those it is responsible for). This is of course is an impossibility, due to the very nature of capital’s logic. A utopia of capital and a utopia of humanity are incompatible since the human version would entail a harmonious static existence that excludes the continued growth necessary for capital; a human utopia is the end of all forms of overcoming, one of the necessary conditions for capital to continue to grow and expand. Capital’s vision of the future denies humanity any vision of its own; as much as capital continually denies most of the world’s population in the present in various ways, it hopes to also deny the future, by continuing to materialize its own narrative.

Utopia has seen itself worked into the very structures of neoliberal capital’s program. The utopian idea of “work-art-play, conceived as a single continuum or interchange” (Anderson 71) is already realized in many ways, with new forms of communication and affect that are central to biopolitical production. The social landscape interwoven at almost every point with capital has effectively deconstructed the public/private divide. Work can now be done from home or while on vacation, and companies no longer hire workers, but rather take on new corporate team and family members. Indeed the combination of work-art-play is very much the new corporate strategy for creating a symbiotic relationship between these, until now, different and divergent sites of social existence. Severed from the utopian dream of an un-alienated labour experience, work-art-play is now a principle structuring how capital invests in productivity.

In the present, the future is already a precarious notion. Neoliberal capitalism and privatization have made the future for individuals and populations subject to the whims of the market, an existence always structured around speculation at every level of life. How and whether one will be able to support themselves and their families? How to earn a living, or find food and shelter? These are questions that maintain much of the world in a condition of existence that is based on the perpetual fear of an uncertain future. For many people in the world today, tomorrow’s prospects are dismal.

There is a profound difference between a belief in and a desire for utopia. The neoliberal belief that we are moving towards a better future, or the more general belief that science will solve all of the world’s problems only works to disrupt the possibility of the unknown. Once all is known then there is little hope for hope. An uncritical teleology blunts the possibilities of resistance; if we are being carried toward better futures there will be no need to mobilize the present. It seems however that utopia is not an impossible future, because in many ways there are already places on Earth that have achieved dystopia.

For Jameson,

Utopian is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopia constructed, but rather the story of its production and the very process of construction as such. (217)

The desire for utopia must be the desire to preserve the possibility of an alternative, whatever that may look like. Perhaps the best starting point to thinking through utopia is to consider the Christian prayer for a “world without end” in its temporal possibilities, a world that never ceases to change and never moves beyond the possibility of possibility.

Works Cited

Anderson, Perry. “The River of Time.” New Left Review 26 (2004): 67-77.

Barboza, David. “International Business; China Drafts Law to Empower Unions and End Labour Abuse.” The New York Times 13 Oct. 2006, late ed., sec. A: 1.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “New-liberalism, the Utopia (Becoming a Reality) of Unlimited Exploitation.” Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. R. Nice. The New Press, 1998.
Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans. M. Imrie. Verso, 1990.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. MIT Press, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

—. The History of Sexuality Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
—. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of the Political Economy – Volume I. Trans. B Fowkes.
Penguin Books, 1990.      

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