As the economic and political landscape around us still seems to be in free-fall, it is becoming a matter of urgency to struggle against the stagnation of our working conditions and well rehearsed rhetoric of emancipatory change from above. Last August, we produced a project called ’We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion’ Over four days of activity, including discussions, workshops and an onsite printing press we considered the role of self-organisation within our current conditions but with a focus on our own position - not only talking but also ‘working through’ these ideas. There was a lot of discussion around the project at the time which has continued through the rest of our programme. Six months on, we want to re-visit some of the material, open up the project as a resource and keep the conversation going. We’re excited to re-publish Mark Fisher’s text The Future is still ours: autonomy and post-capitalism, originally comissioned to accompany the project. As the author of Capitalist Realism (Zer0, 2009), Fisher writes regularly for Film Quarterly, Sight&Sound and The Wire, and on his own weblog, k-punk. In this text Mark introduces his framework for examining contemporary leftist political organisation and considers future possibilities for these networks. To listen to Mark in conversation with Marina Vishmidt, recorded on the first day of Time and Motion, click HERE.
The Future is still ours: autonomy and post-capitalism
Adam Curtis’s recent documentary series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace argued that discourses of self-organisation, which had formerly been associated with the counterculture, were now absorbed into dominant ideology. Hierarchy was bad; networks were good. Organisation itself – held to be synonymous with “top-down control” – was both oppressive and inefficient. There is clearly something in Curtis’s arguments. Practically all mainstream political discourse is suspicious of, and sceptical towards, the state, planning and the possibilities of organised political change. This feeds into the ideological framework that I have called capitalist realism: if systemic change can never happen, all we can do is make the best of capitalism.
There’s no doubt that the right has been able to profit from identifying the left with an allegedly superseded ‘top down’ version of politics. Neoliberalism imposed a model of historical time which places bureaucratic centralisation in the past, by contrast with a “modernisation” that is held to be synonymous with “flexibility” and “individual choice”. More recently, the much derided idea of the Big Society is, in effect, a right wing version of autonomism. The work of Phillip Blond, one of the architects of the “Big Society” concept, is saturated with the rhetoric of self-organisation. In the report “The Ownership State” which he wrote for the ResPublica think-tank, Blond writes of “open systems” which “recognise that uncertainty and change render traditional command-and-control ineffective.” While Blond’s ideas have been seen by many as obfuscatory justifications for the neoliberal privatisation agenda, Blond himself positions them as critical of neoliberalism. Blond notes a paradox that I also discuss in Capitalist Realism: rather than eliminating bureaucracy, as it promised to, neoliberalism has led to its proliferation. Since public services can never function as “proper” markets, the imposition of the “market solution” in healthcare and education “generates a huge and costly bureaucracy of accountants, examiners, inspectors, assessors and auditors, all concerned with assuring quality and asserting control that hinder innovation and experiment and lock in high cost.” Such systems, Blond writes, are “organic rather than mechanistic, and require a completely different management mindset to run them. Strategy and feedback from action are more significant than detailed planning (‘Fire – ready – aim!’ as Tom Peters wrote); hierarchies give way to networks; the periphery is as important as the centre; self-interest and competition are balanced by trust and cooperation; initiative and inventiveness are required rather than compliance; smartening up rather than dumbing down.” Since the right is now prepared to talk in these terms, it is clear that networks and open systems are not enough in themselves to save us. Rather, as Gilles Deleuze argued in his crucial essay “Postscripts on Societies of Control”, networks are simply the mode in which power operates in the “control” societies that have superseded the old “disciplinary” structures.
Does all this then mean that ideas of autonomy and self-organisation would inevitably be co-opted by the right, and that there is no further political potential in them for the left? Definitely not – far from indicating any deficiency in autonomist ideas, the co-option of these ideas by the right shows that they have continuing potency. Seeing what is wrong with Blond and his ilk’s appropriation of autonomism will also tell us something about what the difference between right and left might be in the future.
Curtis is right that the principal way in which autonomist ideas have been neutralised is by using them against the very idea of political organisation. Yet autonomist theories continue to be crucial because they give us some resources for constructing a model of what leftist political organisation could look like in the post-Fordist conditions of mandatory flexibility, globalisation and just-in-time production. We can no longer be in any doubt that the conditions which gave rise to the “old left” have collapsed in the global North, but we must have the courage not to be nostalgic for this lost Fordist world of boring factory work and a labour movement dominated by male industrial workers. As Antonio Negri so powerfully put it in one of the letters collected in the recently published Art And Multitude, “We have to live and suffer the defeat of truth, of our truth. We have to destroy its representation, its continuity, its memory, its trace. All subterfuges for avoiding the recognition that reality has changed, and with it truth, have to be rejected. … The very blood in our veins had been replaced.” Even though the shift into so-called “cognitive” labour has been overstated - just because work involves talking doesn’t make it “cognitive”; the labour of a call centre worker mechanically repeating the same rote phrases all day is no more “cognitive” than that of someone on a production line – Antonio Negri is right that the liberation from repetitive industrial labour remains a victory. Yet, as Christian Marazzi has argued, workers have been like the Old Testament Jews: led out of the bondage of the Fordist factory, they are now marooned in the desert. As Franco Berardi has shown, precarious work brings with it new kinds of misery: the always-on pressure made possible by mobile telecommunications technology means that there is no longer any end to the working day. An always-on population lives in a state of insomniac depression, unable to ever switch off.
But what has to differentiate the left from the right is a commitment to the idea that liberation lies in the future, not the past. We have to believe that the currently collapsing neoliberal reality system is not the only possible modernity; that, on the contrary, it is a cybergothic form of barbarism, which uses the latest technology to reinforce the power of the oldest elites. It is possible for technology and work to be arranged in completely different ways to how they configured now. This belief in the future is our advantage over the right. Phillip Blond’s networked institutions may have a cybernetic sheen, but he argues that they must be situated in a social setting which is re-dedicated to “traditional values” coming from religion and the family. By strong contrast, we must celebrate the disintegration of these “values”, as the necessary precondition for new kinds of solidarity. This solidarity won’t emerge automatically. It will need the invention of new kinds of institutions, as well as the transformation of older bodies, such as trade unions. “One of the most important questions,” Deleuze wrote in the “Control” essay “will concern the ineptitude of the unions: tied to the whole of their history of struggle against the disciplines or within the spaces of enclosure, will they be able to adapt themselves or will they give way to new forms of resistance against the societies of control? Can we already grasp the rough outlines of the coming forms, capable of threatening the joys of marketing?” Perhaps the lineaments of that future can be seen in Latin America, where left wing governments facilitate worker-run collectives. The issue is not any more of abandoning the state, government or planning, but making them part of new systems of feedback that will draw upon - and constitute - collective intelligence. A movement that can replace global capitalism does not need centralisation, but it will require co-ordination. What form will this co-ordination take? How can different autonomous struggles work together? These are the crucial questions we must ask as we begin to build the post-capitalist world.
Beauty regime change: the lost art of NOT looking good
It is often the lot of the modern feminist to deny or disguise the consequences of our objection to normative beauty regimes. Opaque tights give us the freedom to seem sassy without testing the hairy limits of our feminist convictions. But as long we are avoiding the embarrassment that must inevitably flow from the decision not to look conventionally nice, we will eschew only those products and processes that don’t further our aesthetic goals. I am happy to take a stand against liposuction, but rather more nervous about saying that eyebrow threading is a form of female oppression.
Staying within our aesthetic comfort zone, we claim feminist credentials with none of the discomfort. Apart from being cowardly, this approach misses the point. Andrea Dworkin never asserted that her double chin looked fabulous or wrote paeans to her pubic hair. For her, the point was not to invert conventional beauty norms, but overthrow them.
I can imagine the old Rosie Boycott extolling natural female beauty before she came round to Botox following an experiment conducted for a newspaper assignment investigating fillers. When I look in the mirror at my unmodified face and body, I can see that they embody the life they’ve led, but also that they are undeniably less attractive than those of my friends with beauty “regimes”. The essentialist feminist line is harder to maintain now a certain airbrushed youthfulness is the norm. Those who refuse – the unpretty – will stand out, so it’s important to establish the choice is political, not aesthetic.
When feminists first advocated it in the 1970s, unprettiness was a statement of resistance to being seen as sexual objects. Although they seem bolder than us, radical feminists didn’t stand out as much in their age as we do in ours. Most 1970s women were blemished and hirsute to a greater or lesser extent. My mum never plucked her eyebrows or gave a second thought to her skin type. She washed her face in soap and water and put Astral on her chapped hands in the winter. It wasn’t done for thinking women such as her to focus on their appearance – Susan’s bare face and cheesecloth shirts signalled her seriousness of purpose.
In those days, unprettiness equated savviness – visible evidence that you didn’t buy the beauty myth. Since the beauty industry often was lying back then, it was rational not to heed their warnings about what would happen to women who went their whole lives without cleansing and toning. Unprettiness no longer signals seriousness, just extreme poverty or stupidity. The unpretty are castigated on the grounds there’s no excuse for going out looking crap. There’s so much information everywhere about how to look good, you’d have to be stupid not to manage it, or mad. Thinking women mostly do have elaborate beauty routines – now the industry’s promises are credible, it’s rational to invest money and energy chasing radiance and “forever youth”. We have internalised their edicts – I cleanse, tone and moisturise, but don’t recall ever deciding to.
Debt: The First 5000 Years covers a vast sweep of history, anthropology, and political economy, arguing not so much for a single thesis as for a braid of complementary ideas. Among them are:
That money originated as “social currencies” used to rearrange relationships among human beings (marriage, funerals, blood money, and other social functions), and was not used to buy and sell things. Indeed, this kind of money is to be found even in societies without a significant division of labor.
That the first money used for commerce took the form of credit: tallies of transactions and loans denominated in a common unit of account and periodically settled by delivery of various commodities.
That the conflation of these two different kinds of money led to debt peonage, slavery, the demotion of women’s status, and other iniquities that one might expect to happen when human relationships are mediated by the same currency as commercial transactions.
That much of the psychology and morality around money traces its origins to the violence and slavery that have been part of creditor-debtor relationships for thousands of years. War and slavery were crucial in creating the economy we know today, which should not be surprising, as our economic habits still encode the anxiety one might expect from such origins. As well, they perpetuate violence and, if not outright slavery, debt servitude to this day.
That history has alternated between periods of credit money and coinage, with the latter corresponding to times of greater violence, social chaos, slavery, and the repression of women. So for example, the Middle Ages saw the virtual abolition of slavery and the flowering of complex credit relationships facilitating trade across the Indian Ocean and beyond. Coins were seldom used. Compared to the Axial Age that preceded it, it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, ending with the rise of Europe and the influx of vast amounts of silver from the New World. A new age of coinage began.
That markets have never been “free” in the sense of being separate from government, but, to the contrary, were created by governments to facilitate their acquisition of various goods (especially for their armies). They have been intertwined ever since.
That all major world religions grew in response to money, whether informed by the beliefs of people living in a money economy, or in reaction to its evils.
That the origin of capitalism as we know it today is “the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest.” Debt, he says, is the primary instrument of colonization whether internal or abroad – keeping in mind that behind the man with the ledger is a man with a gun. Moreover, the enforcement of debts is key to maintaining the political power relationships the prevail today.
That the invasion of market relations into every sphere of life has always been accompanied by violence. War, debt, and the market are inextricably linked. Even today, our money system is based mainly on the monetization of government war debts. If there is one persistent theme to this book, it is that our association of debt repayment with morality is false; that, indeed, the debt relations that hold today are rooted in a history of violence; that debt and money itself are social creations and not unalterable facts of nature; that our understanding of human nature is deeply colored by the market-based, debt-based world we live in. The world could be different. We are right to want it to be different.
OMFG, this post really nails everything that I have been thinking about in terms in over sharing & preformative “authenticity,” ethics, and the false dichotomy between the individual and the group. I had a difficult time deciding what to bold because pretty much the entire thing rings so fucking true.
The “victimhood-as-cultural-currency thing” to me seemsrelated to or a reflection of the ways any kind of attention itself has become valued specifically (or maybe initially) in Western/American pop culture — reality TV has previously been mentioned, but also celebrity mags, celebrity Twitters, blogging (Tumblr followers, Facebook likes, etc.) and so on… and as far as marketing and “the Mainstream Media,” there has been this obvious shift towards performing authenticity and genuineness in order to appeal to a generation of consumers who can no longer be fooled by advertising’s promise to make life happier or easier via products, so instead the tactic is to market the concept of building an honest identity via certain products— the right kinds of products — and I’m also talking about this relative to zines/radical ‘blogging’ because at least on Tumblr (which, to me, sometimes seems like nothing more than a virtual roomful of self-absorbed twentysomethings obsessed with performing their identities [sorry, been there done that, IDGAF anymore] ) — I don’t know what’s radical about posting so so many GPOYs and listing All The Things You’re Wearing and where it came from and Name Brands, etc. Like, not to totally invalidate your identity-building personal effects, but I can’t relate to how a particular brand of lipstick or underwear or shoe or vinyl record or herbal tea is empowering; I just Don’t Get It.
I relate these acts of consumption — or maybe it’s still a kind of pro-sumption? — to the currency of confessional stories, the currency of victimhood, and performing or presenting a kind of authenticity, sort of like how advertisers want me to identify with a particular car or programming line-up or credit card.In radical venues (especially on Tumblr I guess — note that I’ve been out of the zine-loop for about five years due to a personal unwillingness to share, but more on that later) I am encouraged to identify with an ever-increasing vocabulary, some kind of dichotomous key that will describe in an instant exactly who I am and where I’m coming from. & again, I don’t think this kind of identity politic is invalid across the board but… I’m just Not That Into It & it feels intimidating sometimes (eg, am I boring and irrelevant now because I don’t want to broadcast every defined aspect of myself everywhere all the time?)
"Having an image steadily became more rewarding than being a person; people have problems but images just have spectators" Gary Indiana
It is crystal clear that white supremacy exists. It seeps through every pore in our society. It infects every social relationship. It obviously affects Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone knows the wealth divide, the incarceration numbers, gentrification, the education gap and more are part of the class and racial oppression of the United States. All this is obvious. More politically contentious matters are the social interactions, which are racialized in negative ways in society and specifically in OWS. It is always painful, because at best we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms. However, it is not a surprise that even in movement spaces people experience white supremacy. Our society is saturated with it, so to expect non-racialized human relations in the movement would be utopian.
The combination of structural oppression based on race and class, the history of white supremacy and capitalism, and how that affects people’s interactions with one another, has led to a school of thought called Privilege theory. Privilege theory recognizes structural and historical oppression, but has an undue focus on individual behavior and thoughts as a major way of addressing white supremacy (and other oppressions, but I will tend to focus on white supremacy and class). Privilege theory has a set of basic principles: a) Privilege theory argues that movement spaces should be safe for all oppressed groups. One way to make such a space safe is by negotiating one anothers’ actions in non-oppressive ways. For example, this means straight white men should talk less or think about the privileges they have when discussing an action or political question. b) Privilege theory justifies that militancy and political sophistication is the domain of a privileged elite based on class, gender and racial privileges. c) Privilege theory roots political and strategic mistakes in the personal privileges that people bring into the movement. d) Privilege theory seeks to deal with these issues primarily through education, teach-ins and conversations. This piece will point out key failures in all four principles of Privilege theory. It will tentatively lay out some ways forward, while recognizing more research and, more importantly, more struggle is needed to resolve some of the outstanding problems facing the movement.
Optimistic theorists of cognitive capitalism, such as Hardt and Negri, believe that the positive externalities or spill-over effects associated with immaterial production create the conditions for a new commons. Efforts to measure and privatize human, intellectual and cultural resources must ultimately fail; the hegemonic character of immaterial labour means that the most valuable economic resources are becoming socialized, despite the best efforts of capital to prevent this. The proposition I wish to investigate here is in some ways the inverse: while policy-makers, doctors and economists seek to contain the negative externality of unhappiness as a measurable psychological deficiency and economic cost, it has inherently political and sociological qualities that lend it critical potential. One contradiction of neo-liberalism is that it demands levels of enthusiasm, energy and hope whose conditions it destroys through insecurity, powerlessness and the valorization of unattainable ego ideals via advertising. What is most intriguing about the turn towards happiness amongst political elites and orthodox economists is that it is bringing this truth to the fore, and granting it official statistical endorsement. Even a cursory examination of the evidence on unhappiness in neo-liberal societies draws the observer beyond the limits of psychology, and into questions of political economy.
“One contradiction of neo-liberalism is that it demands levels of enthusiasm, energy and hope whose conditions it destroys through insecurity, powerlessness and the valorization of unattainable ego ideals via advertising”—william davies
The domestic violence charity Refuge could face closure this summer amid funding cuts of 50%, its chief executive has warned.
The charity, which supports 1,600 women and children, has seen funds decimated and is now “fighting for our very survival”, Sandra Horley said.
She spoke out after reports that hundreds of domestic violence victims are being turned away from women’s refuges every day because of a lack of spaces.
The Guardian revealed earlier this year that funding from local authorities to organisations working with domestic-violence and victims of sexual abuse fell from £7.8m in 2010-11 to £5.4m in the current financial year.
The cuts have prompted accusations that the coalition’s austerity measures are unfairly affecting women, and putting them directly at risk.
Horley said: “As CEO of Refuge for nearly three decades, I have never been so worried about our future.
"The domestic violence sector is being decimated. Refuge is stretched to breaking point. We are now fighting for our very survival, desperately trying to raise voluntary funds to keep our doors open. If we don’t do this by the summer, we may face closure.
"What kind of a world do we live in where women and children are beaten and funding for services to protect them is being withdrawn? Britain is in danger of returning to the days of Cathy Come Home when the vulnerable were forced to sleep rough. Abused women could find themselves in a dilemma: stay at home and risk being killed or flee with their children to sleep on the streets."
Horley also questioned the government’s intention to introduce Clare’s law – a new disclosure scheme which enables women to request information from the police about their partner’s previous convictions.
She said the domestic violence sector did not support the initiative and she believed funding would be better invested in improving the basic police response to domestic violence, “which is still extremely poor in forces across the country”.
Last year two refuges, looking after women from ethnic-minority backgrounds, were closed. Official estimates suggested there were 400,000 incidents of domestic violence in the UK last year.
Around 230 women seeking refuge from abusive partners were turned away because of lack of spaces every day, campaigners said.
Earlier this year, Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office minister for equality, denied there was a crisis in the domestic violence support sector.
She said: “I would rebut very firmly that the sector is in crisis, this government is putting its best foot forward and is committed to ending violence against women and girls”.
But Vivienne Hayes, the chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, which represents 350 small charities and community groups, said: “Government cuts have impacted more negatively on women than men. You have to wonder whether this is a case of institutional sexism.”
Just when i thought my disgust a politicians and the state couldn’t go any deeper.