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Integrated world capitalism does not aim at a systematic and generalized repression of the workers, women, youth, minorities… The means of production on which it rests will indeed call for a flexibility in relationships of production and in social relations, and a minimal capacity to adapt to the new forms of sensibility and to the new types of human relationships which are “mutating” here and there (i.e. exploitation by advertising of the “discoveries” of the marginals, relative tolerance with regard to the zones of laissez-faire…) Under these conditions, a semi-tolerated, semi-encouraged, and co-opted protest could well be an intrinsic part of the system.
- Félix Guattari
I am a temporary teaching assistant, and I recently had the privilege of getting inside an Academy. For the chance that anyone is reading this, let alone someone who is reading this from outside the UK, an Academy is a scheme started by New Labour, and continued in a change format by the ConDems (Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition), that lies outside the control of Local Government, and is generally sponsored by Big Companies.
Luckily I was working with Autistic children in the so-called Nurture room. Working with children with learning difficulties or disabilities is always good because you get to work in a more flexible way, compared to sticking rigidly to a curriculum when you work with ‘mainstream’ kids.
As a child of teachers with socialist inclinations I have a very particular perspective of the British education system. And with the general fury in my household at Academies, which effectively bring the capitalism into the heart of the British education system, it was good to be in the midst of the establishment that I’ve so far despised from a distance.
The first thing that caught my eye was the quotes written large above every door, e.g. ‘I see and a forget, I hear and I remember, I do and I understand’ Confucius. There was another quote that I can’t remember precisely about how we need to make mistakes to learn.
Next I notice the childrens’ clothes. I escaped uniforms throughout my education, but these children have to wear black shoes, blazers, and a tie. I heard one teacher in the corridor preparing to carry out a army-style neatness check.
There are a few more things through the course of the day that give me pause for thought (I will skip over all the charming and lovely things about the children and teachers):-
In some way this is a weird mix, right? They have all these deep and meaningful quotes about learning around, along with large writing printed on the walls about kindness, tolerance etc. They also have all this talk of inclusion: they have groups of Autistic children who are integrated with the “Mainstream” for lessons like P.E. and Art, and they (the Empire that is this particular Academy) has just opened a new facility for children that are extremely behind on the curriculum, where they get to spend most of their day doing practical work on a farm.
The quotes apparently contrast with the adverts. They suggest a supportive and philosophical approach, while adverts give off the impression of a competitive, cut-throat and shallow ethos.
The ‘inclusion’ contrasts with a zero tolerance policy on violence. Anyone who has attended a comprehensive in London knows that so many people have issues. Tackling violence with expulsion rather than understanding, is far from inclusive.
So what we have is an extremely authoritarian conservative and capitalist school with a façade of an inclusive, supportive, and liberal school. However, I think this contradiction is necessary, and in some ways not a contradiction at all.
In many ways the appearance of the school acts as one big advert: adverts don’t show the truth of a product, how it was made, what it actually does, it is a high-gloss surface story that uses imagery quite opposed to it’s reality, it shows smiling people, beautiful people, people with lots of friends and a loving family life, who are desired by all, including yourself, the viewer. All the quotes on the wall, and the focus on neat school uniforms, all the liberal talk does something similar – it presents the image of a warm, fuzzy, enticing environment.
On the other hand, talk of ‘inclusion’ and ‘support’ is in many ways not contradictory to the ‘reality’ school. Inclusion in the sense that it is talked about in this context only comes about because we have a very narrow idea of what mainstream is. Education in Britain has a very narrow view of what intelligence is, what normal is, what is valuable, and how children learn effectively.
What is valuable to school is getting good exam results, and to get good exam results means teaching children to be good at exams. My mum, who is a secondary school teacher, prefers teaching years 7-9 because she gets to explore ideas with them, while teaching 10-11 is teaching them exam stuff, what she calls ‘brainwashing’.
What is meant by inclusion and support in this case is inclusion and support in an exclusive and cruel society. This is entirely different from the belief that our world should be one where there is no mainstream, allowing all kids to learn in a variety of ways and environments1, valuing everyone’s unique abilities and skills, and valuing everyone regardless of their abilities or inabilities.
What I found interesting about this video, which was filmed in the aftermath of the London riots, was how often things like ‘dyslexia’ was picked up on. I’m a bit sceptical of the idea of dyslexia, not because I don’t think people have genuine difficulties with reading and writing and they shouldn’t get support, but because I doubt it is ‘abnormal’ – reading and writing are hard, therefore its not surprising that many people have a lot of difficulties. What it does point to though, is that feeling stupid and worthless in school, because schools have a very narrow idea of what is intelligent and valuable, is another way of marginalising people. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this type of marginalisation, that generally happens to those that are marginalised in many other ways, hadn’t contributed in some ways to the riots.
So, both the authoritarian and liberal side of this academy have their roots in the same language and the same context: there is a norm, there is narrow range of valuable abilities, our society is competitive and exclusive. The job is not to have a school where these attitudes are different, but to add support and inclusion to a competitive and exclusionary base. Similarly, pretty quotes and fuzzy writing is added to a strictly disciplinarian base. The relationship is, in a way, harmonious.
The good news is that, though the schools seems set-up to make obedient, 9-5 workers who don’t question capitalism, I think we have good reason to suspect the opposite.
1. Another thing that annoys me about the current political discourse is that people are either good at practical stuff or ‘academic’ stuff, and these are mutually exclusive abilities. Also, the idea that all people who are ‘academically’ gifted learn well in a mainstream school environment, and those who are currently being disruptive or slow at learning, are probably better at vocational studies, is an assumption that pisses me off. I’m sure there are a lot of ‘academically’ gifted people who don’t do well in mainstream education because they don’t fit in there, and lots of people who fit into a school environment who may actually be better, or enjoy more, crafts, plumbing, building etc.
The logical conclusion of the current political discourse means that those who do badly in school (in Britain it is white and Black working class boys) are inherently better at ‘practical’ activities. Which makes no sense – it couldn’t be in their DNA, or else DNA changes if you become middle class. It is more likely that there are societal pressures on those boys causing them to behave in ways that isn’t suited for, allowed in, or conducive to learning, in a mainstream school.
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.
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.
Some insights as to why growth (for really quite some time) is over, strikes can’t work and more generally, the crisis of the labour-capital relation.
Essay from Endnotes 2 - http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1
Essay from Endnotes 2 - http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/3
Essay from Riff Raff - http://bit.ly/IdM1kH
Essay from Riff Raff - http://bit.ly/IdMeV9
Essay from Riff Raff - http://bit.ly/IdMuDj
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