the dirt is temporary

Apr 09 2013

Yes, Thatcher was callous – but so is capitalism

Here’s the thing about Thatcher – when the right wing papers crow that ‘she saved Britain’s economy’, they are not completely wrong. The crisis of capitalism of the 1970s was a real crisis: the Fordist-Keynesian model of production, of the mass factory worker and full employment, had reached the point of systemic failure by the late 1960s. Technical innovation in production had increased rates of surplus value, with more goods being produced for less – but cheaper production costs means cheaper prices, and less profit on each sale. In addition, the increase in surplus production required more and more demand in the market in order to mop it up.

The post-war consensus of full employment and a welfare state was in some respects a means of ensuring that demand kept up with levels of production. This put the labour unions in a strong position with respect to wage demands: the mass factory worker model leant itself to collective bargaining, while the system as a whole relied on the continued purchasing power of workers. By the 1970s, labour was in a dominant position over capital: the combination of falling rates of profit on goods, market saturation and high wage demands started to seriously eat into the overall rate of profit, and ramp up levels of inflation. As David Harvey writes in ‘The Condition of Post-Modernity’, ‘the period from 1965 to 1973 was one in which the inability of Fordism and Keynesianism to contain the inherent contradictions of capitalism became more and more apparent.’

The solution to this problem was to change the way that capitalism worked – to move from a Fordist model to a post-Fordist model, which Harvey terms ‘flexible accumulation’. If the profits within Fordist manufacturing were taking a hit, then the model had to change. Changes in communication technology and transportation (what Harvey calls ‘time-space compression’, or perhaps more commonly, globalisation) meant that production could now be outsourced to countries with weak or negligent union presence, to reduce the costs of wages. This in turn started to weaken the position of trade unions in Britain, as capitalists could now threaten to outsource their manufacturing base unless workers agreed to reduced terms. The unions were now ripe for the capitalist picking: the miners’ strike was only the most prominent example of the strategic attack on organised labour that followed.

But reduced wages means reduced demand. Thatcher squared that circle by shifting the focus of the economy from manufacturing to services: in a sense from production to rent (and debt). Privatisation of utilities, sold at rock bottom prices (thanks to subsidies from North Sea oil) in order to encourage profits, enabled private companies to skim off surplus value and monopoly rents from previously communal resources. This is particularly clear when looking at the railways – the private companies in charge of each line have a monopoly over prices, as there is no alternative option if you want to travel on that line. Pumping up a housing bubble by deliberately restricting supply through the selling off of council houses and the refusal to build anymore meant that rising land values, housing equity and rents became a central source of income for many workers. This, combined with easy access to credit, compensated them for their reduced wages, and propped up demand. And the infamous Big Bang, which loosened the restrictions on the stock market, enabled banks and brokers to amass huge wealth via the buying and selling of debt, and turning the City of London into a de facto tax haven.

In capitalist terms, the Thatcherite reforms worked, at least for a while. Levels of overall growth may not have hit the Keynesian heights, but profits certainly did. The point here is that while there is no doubt that Thatcher took visceral enjoyment from the destruction she wreaked on the lives of the working class – ‘rejoice! rejoice!’ - from the position of of a capitalist class desperate to save capitalism as a mode of production, she had no choice. Indeed, as rightwing academics love pointing out, it was the preceding Callaghan Labour administration who abandoned full employment and started the monetarist policies which became Thatcher’s trademark. This is how capitalism works: its only priority is its reproduction, its continued generation of surplus value and profit. It doesn’t matter who or what gets thrown aside in the process, whether that is the working class or the entire planet itself. This is why it doesn’t matter how much the left point to rising levels of inequality under the post-Fordist/Thatcherite system, or the rampant destruction of working class communities. Under capitalism, it’s irrelevant. In this way, she was right to say ‘there is no such thing as society’ - because from the point of view of the capitalist, there isn’t.

But, of course, as has now become clear, her ‘saving of Britain’ was quite obviously only a temporary solution. The answers she provided worked in terms of salvaging the mode of production for a couple of decades, but have now failed – the crisis that she put off has returned with a vengeance. The economic model of rent, debt and finance collapsed in 2008, and is only still alive thanks to nation states taking on unprecedented levels of indebtedness. Austerity policies are a desperate attempt to recreate the Thatcherite solution to the crisis of profitability. Firstly, this is through renewed attacks on labour, but without any of the compensation: the aim is now to drive down wages and living conditions to the levels of China – and to absolute zero in the case of workfare schemes - in the hope that this will increase ‘competitiveness’. Secondly, through a new bout of privatisation, via the auctioning off of the NHS, pretty much the only thing left that Thatcher didn’t sell. And thirdly, through a further inflation of the housing market bubble: encouraging the public to take on more debt in order to to save the profits of buy-to-let landlords, and continuing to restrict supply.

In effect, in order to save capitalism and the accumulation of wealth once more, people are being forced to work for free, to pay for medical treatment, to go into more debt, and to be made homeless. Or as Marx put it, ‘accumulation of misery [is] a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, ie on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital’. The cruelty and heartlessness that Thatcher personified, and which Cameron and Osborne (and indeed Blair) echo, is therefore an existential demand of the capitalist system. If Thatcher hadn’t existed, capitalism would have had to have made her up.

So in a sense, there is more honesty in the right’s veneration of Thatcher than there is in the left’s demonisation of her – from the point of view of the capitalist class, she did what had to be done in order to save the mode of production, at least for a time. Yes, she was callous; yes, she was cruel: but so is capitalism. The attitude that Thatcher took to the working class is one that goes to the very core of the capitalist class relation. This means that when the left focus primarily on her as an individual, they are letting the system off the hook.


Mar 27 2013
"The desire for authenticity is the most cynical of all the pseudo-needs manufactured by bourgeois ideologists. Capitalism offers up the spectacle of its own inadequacy and then uses this spectacle as the means of reselling itself to those who ‘imagine’ they have ‘progressed’ beyond bourgeois values in a ‘return’ to the ‘authentic’. From health food to anarchism we are bombarded with a thousand and one alternative forms of misery: and while those who believe themselves to be ‘different’ and ‘individual’ cling desperately to their ‘own’ pseudo-brand of ‘authenticity’, there are others who recognise the social nature of (wo)mankind, the necessity of communist revolution and of a radical break with bourgeois values"


'capitalism has found itself able to attenuate (if not resolve) its internal contradictions for a century, and consequently, in the hundred years since the writing of ‘Capital’, it has succeeded in achieving “growth”. We cannot calculate at what price, but we do know the means: by occupying space, by producing a space' - Henri Lefevbre, The Survival of Capitalism


Sep 13 2012
The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.
— Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller


I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism. I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve. Think only of the media exhaustion of news: of how Nixon and, even more so, Kennedy are figures from a now distant past. One is tempted to say that the very function of the news media is to relegate such recent historical experiences as rapidly as possible into the past. The informational function of the media would thus be to help us forget, to serve as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.
— Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society


Aug 31 2012

Work isn’t Working

Just wrote my first piece for New Left Project on why debt, rather than labour, should be the primary site of struggle - the ‘Refusal of Work’, not the ‘Right to Work’…

The position of work in our society has shifted under our feet, even as it defines our subjectivity more than ever. Put simply, the work that most of us do everyday has very little to do with how the economy functions.”


Aug 22 2012
It is a common perception, not untrue, that at least since the ‘20s the art world has been in a kind of permanent institutionalized crisis. One could even say that what we call “the art world” has become the ongoing management of this crisis.
The crisis of course is about the nature of art. The entire apparatus of the art world—critics, journals, curators, gallery owners, dealers, flashy magazines and the people who leaf through them and argue about them in factories-turned-chichi-cafes in gentrifying neighborhoods…—
could be said to exist to come up with an answer to one single question: what is art? Or, to be
more precise, to come up with some answer other than the obvious one, which is “whatever we
can convince very rich people to buy.”
I am really not trying to be cynical. Actually I think the dilemma to some degree flows from the very nature of politics. One thing the explosion of the avant garde did accomplish was to destroy the boundaries between art and politics, to make clear in fact that art was always, really, a form of politics (or at least that this was always one thing that it was.) As a result the art world has been faced with the same fundamental dilemma as any form of politics: the impossibility of establishing its own legitimacy.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
It is the peculiar feature of political life that within it, behavior that could only otherwise be considered insane is perfectly effective. If you managed to convince everyone on earth that you can breathe under water, it won’t make any difference: if you try it, you will still drown. On the other hand, if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were King of France, then you would actually be the King of France. (In fact, it would probably work just to convince a substantial portion of the French civil service and military.)
This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one’s power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one’s power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything— divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But “make me your leader because if you do, I willbe your leader” is not in itself a particularly compelling argument.
In this sense politics is very similar to magic, which in most times and places—as I discovered in Madagascar—is simultaneously recognized as something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works. For this why magic, whether in ancient Thessaly or the contemporary Trobriand Islands, always seems to dwell in an uncertain territory somewhere between poetic expression and outright fraud. And of course the same can usually be said of politics.
If so, for the art world to recognize itself as a form of politics is also to recognize itself as something both magical, and a confidence game—a kind of scam.


Aug 14 2012

Olympian voluntarism

Samantha Murray won Team GB’s last medal of the Olympics: a silver in the women’s modern pentathlon. Hers was also the last of the interminable post-event interviews, in which each Team GB athlete, whether they had won gloriously or were on the verge of tears, was encouraged/blackmailed into describing how they were feeling, and how wonderful the crowd were. By the time the BBC had got round to Murray, after two weeks of practice, both interviewer and interviewee had the routine down to perfection. After describing how she had been only competing on an international level for a short time, Murray launched into a (undoubtedly heartfelt) motivational speech which had Claire Balding and Gabby Logan in paroxysms of legacy-leaving joy. ‘Honestly, if you have a goal - if there’s anything you want to achieve in life - don’t let anybody get in your way,’ she said. ‘You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do.’

It’s a bit harsh to pick on Murray – they were all at it. Mo Farah: ‘It has been a long journey grafting and grafting, but you know, anything is possible, you just have to work hard and graft’. Helen Glover: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything’. Nicola Adams: ‘I think the message is really, whatever sport you’re doing, even if it’s just a job if you work hard at, if you’re dedicated you can achieve anything. Anything’s possible.’

Try to put those words in the mouth of Usain Bolt. ‘Anyone can do anything if they have a dream, I’m just a normal guy, if I can do it, so can you’. It would sound ridiculous. One of the best things about Bolt is that he doesn’t play along with this nonsense – he is exceptional, a freak, and he knows it. ‘I am the greatest athlete to live’, not ‘everyone can run 100 meters in 9.63 seconds, you just have to work hard enough’.

There’s nothing new in this of course – it’s the same ‘follow your dream’ mantra that is repeated endlessly on X-Factor and every reality show going. But it seems to have been reaching a manic pitch over the past two weeks, as politicians and the BBC try to justify state funding of elite sport with the hopeful argument that Olympic success will ‘inspire a generation’. And what is this message actually saying? That everyone in this world gets a chance, and if you don’t take it, or don’t work hard enough, then it’s no-one’s fault but your own. It is the continual reiteration of the state of ‘perpetual possibility’ engendered by an economic system and class relation that denies its own existence: it is the message of the ‘level playing field’, of the individual’s heroic, solitary battle to succeed, neo-liberalism in a vest and shorts. What it masks is the redistribution of all responsibility for the welfare of its citizens onto those citizens themselves: the abdication of the welfare state and the very idea of society.

Mark Fisher has written that this type of ‘magical voluntarism’ – ‘you can do anything if you truly believe’ – is ‘what characterises capitalist realism…fatalism at the level of politics (where nothing much can ever change, except to move further in the direction of neoliberalisation) and magical voluntarism at the level of the individual: you can achieve anything, if you only you do more training courses, listen to Mary Portas or Kirsty Alsop, try harder.’

Fisher takes the concept of ‘magical voluntarism’ from the psychologist David Smail, who defines it in 'Power, Interest and Psychology' as the belief, dominant in the psychological establishment, that mental health problems are the responsibility of the individual, rather than a consequence of their social situation. Thus, with counselling, a depressed or mentally ill person ‘can change the world [they] are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer causes [them] distress’ – in effect, turning ‘the relation of person to world inside out, such that the former becomes the creator of the latter’.

This ‘psychotic’ belief in the power of the individual to change the material conditions of her world, through will power (or ‘hard work’) alone, is the cornerstone of late capitalist subjectivity. It is the outright denial that the social world humans inhabit has any effect on their lives at all – a message rammed home everywhere from CBT and therapy sessions, the job centre, popular culture and sport. Rising levels of mental illness have nothing to do with the way we are forced to live our lives under capitalism – take these pills, it’s all in your head. The huge increase in public school musicians has nothing to do with their financial privilege allowing them to survive on a musician’s meagre wage – ‘it’s not about where you come from’. The ‘disappointing’ exam results of a school in a poor area has nothing to do with poverty, only the individual failings of teachers. Work harder. Achieve anything. It’s also why (as Fisher notes in the article above) whenever the latest ‘scandal’ is uncovered - in the media, at Westminster, or the financial sector - there always has to be a scapegoat, an individual badguy (Bob Diamond, Fred Goodwin), who gets the blame. The concept that scandals might be just the most visible consequence of a systemic, not individual, failure is one that is anathema to ‘magical voluntarism’.

When it comes to someone like Bolt, there is perhaps an element of ‘individual magic’ involved, in the sense that he is clearly on another level of performance. But even he had to be born in country with a incredible sprinting history and infrastructure, to have the luck to be spotted by a coach, to be able to survive during his pre-success training period. If he was born in the Sudan, say, the chances of his being an Olympic champion would have been much less, no matter how much he ‘wanted it’, or ‘worked hard’, or ‘followed his dream’. Social materialism matters even when it comes to exceptional individuals.

What’s interesting about the way in which the British athletes were churning out the ‘work hard and you can do anything’ message during the Olympics (alongside the BBC and the politicians) is the indication that as the reality of Britain in 2012 – endless recession, unemployment, the continued triumph of rentier capitalism – points ever more to the exact opposite, so the mantra of magical voluntarism will be looped and intensified to an even greater degree. It is just one more example of how the contradictions of late capitalism now run directly through the individual psychology of its subjects.

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Aug 01 2012

All sorts of deterritorialized ‘nationalities’ are conceivable - music or poetry might be two examples. We live now under a capitalist system of valorization, in which value is based upon a general equivalent. What makes that system reprehensible is its crushing of all other modes of valorization, which thus find themselves alienated from capitalist hegemony.

That hegemony, however, can be challenged, or at least made to incorporate methods of valorization based on existential productions, and determined neither in terms of abstract labour time, nor of expected capitalist profit. Computerization in particular has unleashed the potential for new forms of ‘exchange’ of value, new collective negotiations, whose ultimate product will be more individual, more singular, more dissensual forms of social action.

Our task - one which encompasses the whole future of research and artistic production - is not only to bring these exchanges into existence; it is to extend notions of collective interest to encompass practices which, in the short term, ‘profit’ no one, but which are, in the long run, vehicles of processual enrichment.

It should be stressed here that the promotion of existential values and the values of desire offers no ready-made global alternatives. Any such alternatives will be the product of more general shifts in existing value systems; of the gradual -emergence of new poles of valorization.

Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (1989)

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Jul 30 2012

Michael Hardt on Autonomism

What is perhaps most attractive about these Italian theorists and the movements they grow out of is their joyful character. All too often, leftist cultures have identified a revolutionary life with a narrow path of asceticism, denial, and even resentment. Here, however, the collective pursuit of pleasures is always in the forefront—revolution is a desiring-machine. Perhaps this is why, althoughthese authors follow many aspects of Marx’s work, they seldom develop either the critique of the commodity or the critique of ideology as a major theme. Although certainly important projects, both of these analyses run the risk of falling into a kind of asceticism that would predicate revolutionary struggle on a denial of thepleasures offered by capitalist society. The path we find here, in contrast, involves no such denial, but rather the adoption and appropriation of the pleasures of capitalist society as our own, intensifying them as a shared collective wealth. This is far from a vision of communism as equally shared poverty, and much less a reference back to precapitalist communal forms. Communism, rather, will emerge out of the heart of capitalism as a social form that not only answers the basic human needs of all but also heightens and intensifies our desires. Corresponding to this focus on joy, there is also permeating the work of these authors a distinctive kind of optimism, which might appear naive to some at first sight. At various points in the 1970s,for example, their writings made it sound as if revolution was possible and even imminent. Even during the bleak periods of defeat and political repression, there isstill an optimistic reading. In the final essay of this volume, for example, Paolo Virnointerprets the counterrevolution of recent years as an inversion and redeployment of revolutionary energies, as if it were the photonegative of a potential revolution.These authors are continually proposing the impossible as if it were the only reasonable option. But this really has nothing to do with simple optimism or pessimism; it is rather a theoretical choice, or a position on the vocation of political theory. In other words, here the tasks of political theory do indeed involve the analyses of the forms of domination and exploitation that plague us, but the first and primary tasks are to identify, affirm, and further the existing instances of social power that allude to a new alternative society, a coming community. The potential revolution is always already immanent in the contemporary social field. Just as these writings are refreshingly free of asceticism, then, so too are they free of defeatism and claims of victimization. It is our task to translate this revolutionary potential, to make the impossible real in our own contexts.

Michael Hardt, Laboratory Italy

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