Deals

It’s kind of incredible that the notion of a “deal” — as in the New Deal, the Fordist pact — still haunts politics today. Though I’ve suggested before that it is, I don’t actually think the desire for a new deal as a response to the current crises is reducible to a nostalgic longing for a return to better times. More than that, the idea of a contract entered into by two discrete parties, and enforced when necessary by a third, transcendent force (law), structures a lot of thinking about political possibilities. That the actual instances of such pacts are increasingly rare explains the nostalgia perhaps, but not the desire.

It should be said that even a priori rejections of new deals tend to assume that they are both possible and forthcoming. Indeed, the autonomist thesis could only be put forward at a time when the idea of a unified collective subjectivity capable of making contractual decisions was assumed to be true. But the Fordist specter that still informs, and for some determines, politics was a unique historical moment, a singular confluence of facts — economic and political mechanisms of capitalist control that were widely inoperable, a confrontational working class (expansively defined), a capitalist leadership willing to make a deal, and institutional agents able to mediate the capital-labor relation — that does not exist today, just as it never existed in the first few hundred years of capitalism’s existence. Its return seems impossible.

Equally unlikely is that the terms that informed Fordism, namely the wage-productivity deal struck by First World unionized men, would be accepted today. During the postwar era, when the equilibrium between necessary and surplus labor inevitably got out of whack, the lack or surfeit was compensated for by an intensification of exploitation or of immiseration in the periphery or among the domestic subaltern. This outsourcing was made possible by legalized discrimination and a whole series of social axioms, neither of which are as rigidly operable today as they were then, mostly because of both refusals and demands of integration on the part of those who suffered from the impossibility of equilibrium. (None of this is to deny that capitalism still exploits along race, gender, and other lines. It does. But the mechanisms and institutions that carry out the operations are much different than they were a half a century ago.)

In other words, what gets called the New Deal or Fordist pact is an abstraction, one that may have once been useful but that now merely unifies a bunch of stratifications and segmentations to arrive at a unified subjectivity. But what animated the postwar era wasn’t a single deal but a series of agreements regarding productivity, labor peace, income security, where the crises got displaced, etc. It’s in the context of these agreements where antagonism remains possible, while the deal ends in a contracting subject.

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