Tag Archives: #endofcapitalism

We need to learn to speak again: Linguistification of society as foreplay to social change

18. II 2019

Tongue finger

One avoids a lie whenever one can get away with truth (Borislav Pekic)

Why does it appear impossible to dispute obvious lies and falsehoods with simple and self-evident truths? It’s been more than two years since lies were set free. They have flooded the public discourse, politics, media and everyday life. Lies and falsehoods are neither exonerated, nor are they getting flushed out. They continue to pile up on top of existing ones with no drainage mechanism in place. Their presence continues to agitate the public, but nothing seems to be on the horizon that would resolve the underlying tensions. The political entropy caused by this toxic ferment is gradually sucking out all the oxygen and beginning to intoxicate even its own creators.

There is something about the current political configuration that is conducive to this state of unresolved contradictions, which is embedded in our thinking and language. In capitalism, the significance of a concept is primarily measured in terms of its value in the marketplace. The market value system has penetrated all social relationships and governs our thinking and language as well. Under capitalist conditions, language functions as a commodity[1]. For example, we express an agreement by saying: I buy that, disagreement with: I don’t buy it. Winning an acceptance is articulated as selling (the President has to sell that idea to Congress).

As a consequence, any resistance to capitalist hegemony, either through critique or protest, is recognized as successful only it if sells well, and vice versa – fails if it sells poorly. In other words, language in capitalism is mute. Criticism of capitalism does not operate in the same medium as capitalism itself[2]. The two can never meet each other, and they cannot be allowed to. In that respect, capitalism is structured in a very Euclidean way. According to Boris Groys, society first must be altered by linguistification if it is to become subject to any meaningful critique[3] – before we contemplate any change, we need to learn how to speak; linguistification is a foreplay to any meaningful change.

Capitalism’s instinct for survival mobilizes any and all possible forces of defense, including its spontaneous mutation, in order to prevent its own transformation. The merger of politics and entertainment is one such mechanism at play. The logic behind this strange symbiosis is simple. Entertainment draws attention and boosts viewership and ratings — it takes attention away from the content and reinforces the message irrespective of its validity. This is the commodification of language at its purest.

How nonsense travels: Semantic excess and its transmission mechanisms

Current political protagonists have an unusual set of skills. They show up in various shapes and forms as a composite of entertainers, debate artists, and charismatic personalities with a penchant for scandal, something like a massively dumbed down version of sophists. They are, to paraphrase Boris Groys, entrepreneurs who offer the empty surfaces of coherently articulated speech to anyone who wishes to be concealed behind them. The real attraction of the linguistic commodities offered for sale by these characters is represented less by their logically valid surfaces than by the dark space behind those surfaces where customers can settle comfortably. The key transformation of political subjects into consumers has already taken place. Listeners are encouraged to appropriate the obscure core of populist speech in order to fill it with their own concerns[4]. In other words, speech that hides its paradoxical structure becomes a commodity that invites penetration into its paradoxical background or interior.

In the political environment where all social structures are suspended and things function like in professional wrestling, where only the loudest voices are heard, ratings are the ultimate metric. Everything is measured by its shock value. It doesn’t matter what kind of attention (good or bad) one gets, whatever cuts through the mix counts; the rest drowns out in the overall cacophony of semantic excess. And the more politics resemble a circus, the more people will tune in to see it. Everything else is of secondary importance. Viewers will dial in not to get a dose of sense or logic, but to be entertained, agitated or to activate any emotion that interrupts their boredom.

There is a concentrated effort to keep every public discourse trapped in the vortex of commodified language, where any new idea that could lead to a possibility of change receives a price tag and gets absorbed by the black background of the capitalist value system. The sole purpose of political talking heads, spokesmen and pundits – the political whirling dervishes – is to not allow this vortex of cognitive opacity to come to a halt and to stir each debate and discursive deviation towards its center. Media are caught in this play as unwitting accomplices. Like rats who carry the bubonic plague, they facilitate the transmission of the message; they cannot stop the dissemination of lies because they go wherever profits take them.

Disappearance by proliferation: Between logic and truth

Is truth necessary at all? Can’t logic replace it? Logic is something permanent, whereas truth changes. (Borislav Pekic)

There is nothing new in the political platform of the right wing populism — its still-born ideas are outdated, compromised, and were disqualified long ago — its only innovation is linguistic. The grand program is to exonerate lies and integrate them into the mainstream capitalist system. Flooding the public discourse with lies and falsehoods is multi-purpose.

Lies have had an uncomfortable and disadvantaged position in capitalism. Those who lie, steal — they are thieves. And although they respect property, thieves want to redistribute it, and redistribution is the biggest sin in capitalism. So, liars are assholes. However, this logic (unjustly) denies lies, and those who are good at using them, their chance at limitless profit making. And the new populist breed is here to correct this historical injustice (this is America!). Their mission is to show that lies, when set free, could take us to places we could only have dreamed of. Lies can become monetary forward contracts, a promise of revenue, and no longer a challenge to the interpretation of reality. By maintaining the capitalist paradigm, profit exonerates the encounter of lies with facts.

When seen in retrospect, 2016 was a cognitive coup d’état. The subsequent two years have been a process of transcription of society into the medium of language, a linguistic counterrevolution and not a political or social and economic movement – nothing has really been accomplished, nothing sustainable achieved, except an overall social and political destabilization.

So, before anything can change, the last two years have to be undone — we first need to learn how to speak again. Learning the right language is a foreplay that needs to come before any political action. The progressive agenda, if it is to be effective at this stage, has to be centered on the linguistic part.

To begin to learn how to speak again, and to grasp the inadequacy of the existing language (the only one we know at the moment), one has to start speaking about the unspeakable, about the topics where the commodified language of capitalism is mute. We need to escape into the blind alleys of capitalism where its systemic disorders, the five horsemen of the apocalypse, reside[5]: Stagnation, Redistribution, Plundering of the public domain, Technology and commodification of labor, and Corruption.

These are the topics that define the discourse of change. They address the central points of self-intoxication, the Achilles heels of capitalism. The five systemic disorders expose the inner contradictions, the paradoxicality of the system; they are the portals of change. Any political figure whose platform is defined by these topics deserves our attention. All others are impostors.

[1] Boris Groys, Das komunistische Postskriptum, Suhrkamp Verlag (2006)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, Verso (2017)

Pregnant widow: A brief history of the next 30 years

5.I 2017

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Capitalism is disintegrating, but it is not giving way to a better alternative, it is collapsing under its own weight[1]. In the last 40 years, economic progress has been financed largely by social deficits. At the end, we found ourselves trapped in the stalemate of status quo because we agreed to let the market set prices and all other values. Things and services were sold for less than it cost to make them. The actual costs were externalized, their burden not bore by the profit centers, but by the state and increasingly more by the citizens.  However, these are actual costs somebody had to pay. So, at the end, things could not add up. Everyone was running some kind of deficit, and the game had to come to an end. Occasional hiccups during the transfer of those deficits from one side to the other were interpreted as market failures. But, in reality, there were actually no market failures per se; the market itself is the failure[2]. Eventually, this had to be recognized, and we have now come to the point where this realization can no longer be ignored: Capitalism no longer works for capitalists.

From the current standpoint, future looks anything but unambiguous. No decision has been made about the direction the future is taking. This moment of history represents what Alexander Herzen had identified as the Pregnant Widow: The old system has given way and the new one hasn’t been born yet. Does the future bring a normal infant or a Rosemarie’s baby?

We are approaching the final stages of unwind of the 500 years of history. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, we had a glimpse of the future — the three main candidates represented three distinct economic, political and social paths: Status quo (Clinton), regressive populism (Trump), and emancipatory transformation (Sanders). In the past, we had rarely had an opportunity to see such radically different visions getting such a large-scale representation and response — elections had always been about two “infinitesimally” different interpretations of a single path.

The preview of the three paths into the future might very well be a prelude to the most radical and, at the same time, the most significant transformation of capitalism after the industrial revolution. It is an announcement of the socioeconomic blowback, the arrival of times where social deficits will have to be reconciled and managed. The three paths should be seen as the three attraction centers which will define the dynamics of socio-economic developments in the next decades[3]: Democratic fascism, Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”, and Neo Feudalism. The figure shows the three futures in the context of social and political changes after 1968.

cascading-bifurcations

Democratic fascism

A semi-inclusive, cast-like division into two strata: Top 20% with highly egalitarian distribution & 80% of totally disarmed working “precariat”. The key is the balance in size (in the past, similar projects failed because the top was too small).

Legitimation: The dogma of progress & neo-liberal ideology.

Alliances: Military force, Think tanks, Semi-progressive corporate conglomerates, Educational institutions.

Means: Pseudo-progressive politics, Immigration policy, Advanced media and technology, Control of food and water, military technology. To the western mind this mode is the most palatable alternative for the existing system. Favored by Neo liberals.

Decentralized egalitarian “utopia”

Inclusive, achievable through political sophistication and technology; requires accepting certain real limitations in consumption expenditures. Does not mean merely a socialization of poverty. Needs to reconcile with adverse effects of progress, e.g. creation of wealth causes destruction of value.

Legitimation: Evidence that short-termism leads to undesirable long-term outcomes

Alliances: Think tanks, Influential individuals, Technological and networking wealth, New industrial sector based on the commons.

Means: Progressive emancipatory politics, Technological and political innovations and networking. Favored by Western intellectuals (and Hipsters).

Neo Feudalism

An exclusive, highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties (an equilibrated form of the current “times of trouble”). Consolidation of fractionalized structures into bigger entities with highly vertical structure, e.g. multinational corporations, global crime syndicates…, but without endless capital accumulation as the mainspring.

Legitimation: return to a belief in natural hierarchies.

Alliances: Right wing militias, religious and other fringe elements.

Means: Paramilitary Force, Populism, Regressive non-emancipatory politics, Drugs, Authoritarian propaganda. A glimpse of this mode is seen in post socialist oligarchic systems (China, Russia, Myanmar, Mexico). Favored by Western right wing political organizations. 

We are nowhere near the new equilibrium; the developments of the last decade present just an announcement of a lengthy transformation process ahead of us, expected to take the center stage in the next 30-40 years.

The next 30 years

2016: Baby has six toes

The enthusiastic support enjoyed so far by the non-centrist parties in the developed world outline the unconscious desire for destruction of the system that has imprisoned almost everyone. More than anything, populist victories reflect a defeat of the centrist politics, a departure from what has been looking more and more like the path of democratic fascism. Trump’s victory pointed out the lines of fracture in the centrist narrative and capitalized on its symbolic insolvency. About 17% of those who voted for Donald Trump believe that he is not qualified to perform the duty of the President of the United States. It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent expression of unconditional discontent with status quo than this. Trump’s movement is de-facto a rise of the neo- feudal America. The core of its platform represents the unbundling of the neoliberalism and rebranding it as an anti-global movement. It sees the future as highly inegalitarian world of parcelized sovereignties with highly vertical structure.

By no means does this represent the end of the transformation. It is just the beginning of a troubling unwind. Pregnant widow is only in the second trimester of her complicated pregnancy.

Beyond 2016: Times of Trouble

In the next 2-3 decades, social disorder could take new dimension as demographic transformations continue to weaken state structures further. This could be expressed through two different modes. Either the discontent of ethnically excluded spreads to absorb and articulate the sentiments of other exclusions or, alternatively, discontent of the permanently excluded provokes a reaction of the redundant natives and trigger their uprising and backlash. Civil warfare, initially misdiagnosed as increase in crime, would escalate[4].

The scramble for protection (which has already begun) assumes a new form as the states cannot provide it due to lack of funding and legitimation. The state’s monopoly on violence is breached and reorganized through the expansion of private protection armies and police structure. This process had already been accomplished in the post-socialist countries about 25 years ago and is likely to serve as a blueprint for a similar transformation in the western world.

Western democratic states where these transformations take place will gradually converge towards failed states. Contours of this program are already inscribed in the Trump’s cabinet nominations. Combined with the other side-effects of globalization and the underlying social fragmentation, these developments will lead to further criminalization of societies and polarization of distribution with escalation of corruption and dismantling of the institutions of the democratic state as a natural consequence, implying further instabilities. Organized crime will blossom and reinforce its legitimacy, while developed countries will converge closer towards criminal oligarchies or other authoritarian structures.

The fourth future: A lullaby for Rosemary’s baby

Symbolically dead (from an overdose of itself) while still very much physically alive, unable to either transform by replacing itself with something else or adapt and restore itself to equilibrium, capitalism is exiting the historical scene. However, before it disappears, capitalism will continue to inhabit the world of undead. It will remain inscribed into the system in the guise of a wound which makes the social subject undead, depriving it of the capacity to die — only when this wound is healed, can the capitalist society die in peace and transform itself into something else.

As an economic system, capitalism (at this point) is showing an advanced decline in capacity to underwrite a stable society. What follows after such a disintegration of a system is a prolonged period of social entropy and disorder. For a significant length of time, a society would slip into less than a society – a society-lite — until it may or may not recover and again become a society in the full meaning of the term[5].

Out of all possible paths, this is the most radical outcome, one that is without a historical precedent and one we seem to be least prepared for. It corresponds to what Wolfgang Streeck calls the Interregnum, disintegration of society as such, a perpetual anotherhood – pregnancy without childbirth — a trajectory where the times of trouble continue indefinitely.

Neoliberal narrative which identifies the absence of structure as an ultimate expression of freedom will find new legs in the post-social phase. This is the phase of undead capitalism, the times when the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity

[1] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016

[2] Kim Stanley Robinson, in An American Utopia (S. Zizek ed.), Verso 2016

[3] I. Wallerstine, Historical Capitalism, Verso 2011

[4] I. Wallerstine, ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How will capitalism end?, Verso 2016