Category Archives: Control

Tense of history

One leftist response to Trump’s installation has been to counsel those engaging in the resistance to him to do so with a “sense of history,” that is, with the knowledge that he didn’t invent the techniques and forms currently being used for such awful ends. Some even go so far as to give permission to the protesters to protest as long as they do so while being conscious that the awfulness has all “already come to pass.”

This, I suppose, is the legacy of historical materialism (though it is strange that a methodology that strives to be alert to historical differences ends up homogenizing history). As an analytical imperative, it does make some sense. Recognizing the genealogies of things can give us insight into how they might be put to use in the near future, how they might mutate, and how they might be interrupted. It might also help cure us of the belief that opposing state actions can be more effective by exploiting fissures in governance or, worse, by aspiring to governance.

But as an immediate question while Trump and Bannon are purposefully creating a state of emergency by overwhelming us with events, I don’t see the strategic necessity of being cognizant of these histories, especially when this demand for awareness is couched in vague, almost mystical terms like “sense of history” or in a blithe dismissal that it’s all happened before. This sort of intellectualistism, whose own genealogy is Leninist, is idealist in its conviction that awareness precedes action and vanguardist in its belief that organization needs theory to become legible. 

But the people crossing borders, harboring migrants, blocking pipelines, protesting police violence, and participating in all the other antistate actions going on today lack nothing, certainly not awareness and certainly not tactical sophistication. Instead of making sense of history, they are doing something way more valuable: making history tense. 


[As I get back into writing, I’m going to put up some fragments I’ve jotted down this year of extreme unproductivity. Beware: they are undeveloped and likely trite.]

There was in interesting discussion on Nettime recently. Or I should I say, as with most discussions at Nettime, it had the makings of an interesting discussion, before it fell into recriminations and went down the usual uninteresting byways. Here’s the link to the OP. Leaving aside the privileged position given to intellectuals’ position in the shape of things, what interests me are two things: the oversimplified analysis that what the 1% wants is the killing of all creatives and critics, as if it didn’t depend on the capture of independent creativity to clean up its crises; and the idea that “complexity” is an ideological simplification, a capitulation to the rulers, and the refuge of cowardly intellectuals.

Well, the idea (“fact”) of complexity is an ideological concern of management gurus, administrators, and capitalist theorists. In that sense, it’s certainly objectionable, not to mention aesthetically unpleasant. I’m sure it’s especially distasteful to the (para)academics at the Nettime discussion that the notion of complexity was refined in the academy. But notice that the instances of when complexity is invoked in the academy, it is used in one of two ways: as a wave to catch and conquer, or as a thing to control. Of course these are the same things, or two sides of a process: the harnessing of creative energy produced by complexity, and the managing and steering of it, as far as possible, to ends that become profitable and controlling.

So saying that complexity is craven capitulation to management gets it exactly wrong: Complexity has been foisted on management (writ large) by a multiplicity of struggles, evasions, and refusals. Complexity studies (i.e., management programs, organizational development, etc.) represent management’s response. Browse the course catalog for almost any non-humanities masters programs, and it’s immediately apparent that the obsession with complexity is all about taming it and directing it. Recognizing complexity is no more a capitulation to that than, say, accepting tenure is.


In this post from a year ago, I quoted Franco Berardi: “Only the social force of the general intellect can reset the machine and initiate a paradigm shift, but this presupposes the autonomy of the general intellect, the social solidarity of cognitarians.” Bifo seemed to have in mind a communization that would save the world, or create one, but it’s also the case that capitalism needs this autonomous subjectivity to lead the way to a new regime of accumulation. It can’t do it itself. That’s always been so, but financialization has created a governance problem that is especially unbridgeable: The strategic scattering of production, the nullification of unions, and the destruction of welfare state provisos, among other things, have put the workforce and, to a lesser extent, its reproduction beyond capital’s direct command. As long as the subjects of debt adhere to the convention of this arrangement, it works, but once they start taking advantage of their not being managed, the equilibrium becomes upset. What capital needs right now is what it has fought against for thirty-plus years: mediation.

With this in mind, and without holding it up as a vanguard, it seems to me that the worst thing that could happen to the occupy movement is cooptation. The danger of cooption isn’t that it will make the movement fizzle out or that it will mean a taming of its agenda and a bringing into the Democratic fold. Those are, at least in softer forms, inevitable and are just symptoms of the real danger: the capturing of autonomous subjectivity to create a new regime of accumulation. It’s impossible to know what that would look like just now, but it was just as hard to imagine Fordism arising from, say, the CIO sit-down strikes of the 30s.

In a sense, all the debates that have surrounded the occupations revolve around the question of cooptation: demands and “organization,” “violence” and civil disobedience. The forces that have held the line against the former pair and refused to the condemn the latter pair have been waging a fight against cooptation. This isn’t to say that those who question the commitment to those strategies are craven sellouts, but it does seem to be the case that those who want demands and a program, and who question, for example, black bloc tactics and even occupation in general, are also eager to seek solutions to problems: full employment, greater social benefits, financial regulation, etc. That is to say, they want state management of the economy.

And for their political purposes, they are right. But other protesters, I would even venture to say most others, know that state involvement would in the long run benefit not the 99% but capital. Because even though the increased repression of the last few days might indicate otherwise, the occupations present capital with an opportunity it’s been needing but unable to create the conditions for on its own. I don’t think, at this point, that the movement is politically powerful enough to instigate a new kind of production, but it soon could be. If so, the question then becomes, Will capital be able to capture this new subjectivity and transform it into a mode of accumulation. If autonomy means anything, it means keeping this cooptation at bay.

China, contracts, and capture

There have been a couple of interesting articles on China recently. One at Mute, by Sander, registers skepticism that China, the workshop of the world, can save world capitalism by transforming itself into a consumer economy, the household of the world.

And if [China] were to use its hoard not for massive investments but to finance a general rise of purchasing power, the consequences would be equally catastrophic: the price of labour power, which remains its main competitive weapon, would shoot up, inflation and speculative investment, which already have reached alarming levels because of the accelerated monetary creation, would become unstoppable. It’s as if there was a curse on China’s hoard: these trillions of dollars will keep their value only as long as they remain untouched.

The other article, by Mouvement Communiste, focuses on labor rather than capital, specifically the wave of strikes that hit the coastal manufacturing sector, particularly foreign-owned automakers like Honda, in the summer of 2010 – though really it was the continuation of increased militancy that dates to around 2005 – and theorizes that the “working class emerging from this process, more skilled, more urbanised and more militant, represents the risk of a political crisis (in the sense of class relations) for capital.”

Both are interesting reads. But I think they also miss the mark in some important ways. Sander’s article is good on the economic factors that would make China’s transformation to a consumption-led economy difficult, but he also underestimates both the vision of its state planning and the fundamental ways the state has already altered labor relations to make that transformation possible. MC rightly notes and praises the novelty and fierceness of the 2010 industrial strikes, but overlooks that the actions were tolerated – to what degree is debatable, of course – by the state as part of a strategy for making the transformation. Though I generally sympathize with MC’s employment of the autonomist hypothesis, I don’t think the strikes can simply be reduced to an intractable antagonism between labor and capital. Maybe I should explain.

Over the last decade or so, the largest wage gains in China, by a fairly large percentage, have been enjoyed by workers employed by state-owned enterprises. Private and foreign firms, not surprisingly, have increased wages at a much slower pace. There are a few problems with this from the state’s perspective (even aside from capital’s many ideological objections to the SOEs). First, the wage gains have not been accompanied by any increase in productivity; in fact, productivity at SOEs is stagnant or even declining. So the state has financed a disproportionate share of income increases, relative to its output, which, in service of transforming the economy, it likely wouldn’t mind if it weren’t so clearly unsustainable fiscally in the long term. (It also needs money to finance its spectacular investment rates.) Second, even though the pace is slow (especially if you are an impatient western capitalist intellectual), the state does indeed want to shift all but the most “sensitive” of industries to private and/or foreign ownership, which is why it has spent the last twenty years mothballing SOEs at a phenomenal rate. China wants to be relieved of direct responsibility for its workers.

Putting these two elements together reveals a third problem: SOEs are responsible for most of the increased income of Chinese laborers, but they are a decreasing share of the national economy, and are trying to get out of production altogether (aside from those sensitive industries). Obviously, this has profound effects on the possibility of China’s transformation. If the state, directly through its enterprises, is less able to control the wage-directed financing of consumption, how does it create conditions for the realization of the transformation? That is, if the state can no longer artificially inflate purchasing power, how does it create the wage increases necessary both to pacify workers and to accomplish the move to a consumption-based economy?

Well, the obvious way would be for the state to dictate large, universal (or, conversely, targeted) rises in minimum wages. But between the hard laws of trade agreements and the soft laws of market opinion, such a move would be dangerous in that it could trigger litigation and capital flight. So, since the state can’t force higher incomes out of private enterprises, it has turned to a strategy of encouraging them, and it is capturing increased worker militancy to help accomplish a general rise in wages. This is why, for instance, as MC notes, the CEO of China’s state-owned automaker negotiated a settlement to the Honda strike that was beneficial to the workers. This is why the same CEO is in favor of laws that would legalize strikes by workers. This why the state strictly bans labor actions against SOEs but tolerates, to varying degrees, actions against foreign and domestic private firms. Generally, this is why, after years of suppressing labor actions, the government has turned to managing strikes rather than putting them down.

Of course China would be in trouble as a nation if it just allowed these wage increases to outpace productivity, which would cause investors to flee. So while it is allowing wage inflation, via its hands-off approach to settling labor conflicts, along the southeast coast – the first part of the country to liberalize and the destination of tens of millions of migrant workers – it has been pushing the interior, the large cities that dot the vast rural regions where labor unrest has been less tolerated, as the new site for foreign-owned industry. And by push, I mean both publicize and, more importantly, build the needed infrastructure for: the government has invested hundreds of billions linking interior nodes of production to the rest of the country, especially the southeast coast, with transportation and communications networks. The workforce of the interior cities, which is largely fed by migrants from the nearby countryside, will form the new low-wage centers, making possible the coast’s transformation to consumption-based, service-led industries while retaining the country’s industrial, manufacturing, and exporting base. (I won’t go into detail, but a shift in the site of production might also help China deal with its internal-migration problems and the disintegrating hukou system.)

The state, then, is planning the Chinese economy as much as it ever has, or at least it is engineering the movement and locations of its workforce. But at the same time, through rapid privatization, it is subjecting more and more workers to the discipline of the market. More central planning, yet also more of the invisible hand. There’s no contradiction here, as capitalist powers have always developed this way, though the Chinese state might be a bit more active and interventionist than its forebears. But just a bit.

So China is managing its workforce and using it to make changes to the national economy that can help make it a mature capitalist power. Nothing special there. But it is worth noting how it is managing the transformation, the techniques being utilized, because they amount not to repression of workers but to a capturing of their energy. As noted above, the state is harnessing, or attempting to, the power of workers’ actions and of industrial strikes to increase income levels and, eventually, consumption levels. The government is also increasing the welfare state by pushing toward universal health care, by doubling pension payments since 2005, and by increasing workforce retraining and unemployment payments. Generally, the state has embraced a, for lack of a better term, Keynesian/Fordist philosophy for forging new relations with labor, which will be based not on necessity and repression but on contracts, rights, and even unionization.

This is technique is perhaps most evident in the law governing contracts that came into effect in 2008. Whereas previous to that year laws governing labor agreements were liberal and, where they even existed, locally enforced, the 2008 law made contracts universally mandatory: every employer in China must provide employees with a written contract. And the law is strict: contracts are for life and only employees can nullify them; short-term arrangements are strictly limited, and in the case where a contract has lapsed, the employee retains rights to re-employment; employees have the right to sue for wrongful termination, and severance packages are mandatory; etc. China’s policy on labor contracts is as all-encompassing as anything in Europe.

And as in Europe, despite the law’s formal universality, its real effects and its enforcement are distinctly segmented. According to an analysis by a U.S. consulting firm:

Enforcement will likely be less strict away from the major coastal cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In addition, inland provinces often have lower non-labor costs and lower minimum wage requirements. For this reason, many foreign companies have begun plans to shift production inland to such provinces as Hunan and Anhui.

Already contained in the law is the understanding that it will be selectively enforced and that it’s being used to relocate the nodes of industrial production.

Regardless, the shift to contracts and an independent workforce is real. The development of China’s economy and, more importantly, its workforce, while not as novel as some have it, is nonetheless notable because it represents a shift to, as Deleuze/Foucault might say, techniques of inciting, inducing, and seducing. This path of development contradicts the imaginations of many westerners, for whom China is a brutally suppressive place where labor rights, like political rights, are nonexistent. The sweatshop of the world. No doubt there’s still plenty of that, but the recent state policy changes show that something else is afoot: instead of repressing, which the strike wave of the last few years has shown to be impossible anyway, the state now wants to manage proletarian productivity. It is meeting workers’ demands for rights and benefits and using them to transform the economy. It is tolerating workers’ organization and revolt to craft new kinds of exploitation. Its governance is now typified less by repression and more by capture.


Look at the discourse of the European political class (almost without exception): If deregulation produced the systemic collapse with which the global economy is now confronted, we need more deregulation. If lower taxation on high incomes led to a fall in demand, let’s lower high-income taxation. If hyper-exploitation resulted in the overproduction of unsold and useless cars, let’s intensify car production.

Are these people insane? I don’t think so. I think they are incapable of thinking in terms of the future; they are panicking, terrorized by their own impotence; they are scared. The modern bourgeoisie was a strongly territorialized class, linked to material assets; it could not exist without a relationship to territory and community. The financial class that dominates the contemporary scene has no attachment to either territory or material production, because its power and wealth are founded on the perfect abstraction of a digitally multiplied finance.

This last part, from Franco Berardi’s intriguing and insightful article “Cognitarian Subjectivation,” misstates the change financialization enacts and comes close to repeating populist finance-as-parasite arguments. Finance is linked to both territory and material production: private equity attaches to productive companies, some of which even make things you can hold in your hands; currencies are translated between markets that align with the borders of nations; investments in public securities depend on the (fiscal, financial) health of states. Certainly the relationship between finance and territory/production has changed, just as the territorialities and modes of production have changed, but Berardi’s claim of “no attachment” goes against the work, by Christian Marazzi and many others, that assumes that the distinction between the real economy and the financial economy no longer holds, if it ever did. Finance is less of a “perfect abstraction” than it has ever been.

Or maybe what Berardi is registering here is a difference between Europe and the United States, where a mania for (industrial) deregulation, lower taxation, and hyper-exploitation reigns that can’t be attributed to financial-class domination. If anything, in the United States finance leads the (admittedly feeble) calls for more regulation and taxation (though not of its sector, of course), while the political, industrial, and merchant classes scream for more freedom for capital. This freedom for capital includes two components, two demands: for the unrestricted exploitation of labor, and to be rid of its “obligations” toward nonproductive subjects — those too old, young, or disabled or otherwise unable to produce. The unemployed and the unemployable.

It’s this, I think, that gives rise to the “insane” and frightened political responses: not the lack of connection to community or country but the inability to command labor and populations and to direct financial resources. The root of the crisis lies in the realization that “empire is ungovernable.”

And this digital-financial hyper-abstraction is liquidating the living body of the planet, and the social body. Only the social force of the general intellect can reset the machine and initiate a paradigm shift, but this presupposes the autonomy of the general intellect, the social solidarity of cognitarians. It presupposes a process of autonomous subjectivation of collective intelligence.

Yes. As has happened at other times, the impossibility of command means that capitalism can only rely on the autonomous activity of workers (broadly speaking) and then hope to capture their subjectivity for a renewed sociality. The problem right now is that the general intellect seems tilted toward the pole of machinic enslavement and away from the pole of social subjection that could produce new value and create new subjectivities. The fear comes from not knowing if the tilt will ever reverse itself.

Machines and democracy


The solution to the problem of political economy, of capitalist alienation, and of cybernetics, was supposed to be found in the invention of a new kind of relationship with machines, a “technological culture” that up to now had been lacking in western modernity.  Such a doctrine justified, thirty years later, the massive development of “citizen” teaching in science and technology. Because living beings, contrary to the cybernetic hypothesis’ idea, are essentially different from machines, mankind would thus have the responsibility to represent technological objects: “mankind, as the witness of the machines,” wrote Simondon, “is responsible for their relationship; the individual machine represents man, but man represents the ensemble of machines, since there is no one machine for all the machines, whereas there can be a kind of thinking that would cover them all.” In its present utopian form, seen in the writings of Guattari at the end of his life, or today in the writings of Bruno Latour, this school claimed to “make objects speak”, and to represent their norms in the public arena through a “parliament of Things.”  […]  What the utopians pretended not to know was that the integration of technological thinking by everybody would in no way undermine the existing power relations. The acknowledgement of the man-machines hybridity in social arrangements would certainly do no more than extend the struggle for recognition and the tyranny of transparency to the inanimate world. In this renovated political ecology, socialism and cybernetics would attain to their point of optimal convergence: the project of a green republic, a technological democracy — “a renovation of democracy could have as its objective a pluralistic management of the whole of the machinic constituents,” wrote Guattari in the last text he ever published — the lethal vision of a definitive civil peace between humans and non-humans.

I agree with this. Earlier this year I read many of Guattari’s late ecological pieces, and I was struck by the ways in which his ecology, like his machines, were envisioned both as a safe harbor from post-’68 political disappointments and as a new ground on which humans could recompose themselves and regain control over things. Man’s dominion over things and all that. Instead of employing escape and anarchy, Guattari’s ecology was informed by fantasy and sovereignty, an attempt to solve social antagonism by displacing it.

Similarly, I think speculative realists are repeating the cybernetics mistakes that Tiqqun correctly diagnoses: a failure to discuss or even acknowledge the problem of representation, which they attempt to elide by a thorough depoliticization of ontology. (Claiming that objects are “withdrawn” is a symptom of the problem, not a solution to it.) Appropriately enough, this gets called the “democracy of objects.” But objects have a way of not caring, and of biting back.


The veil

“We are an old country anchored in a certain idea of how to live together. A full veil which completely hides the face is an attack on those values, which for us are so fundamental,” [Sarkozy] told his ministers. “Citizenship has to be lived with an uncovered face. There can therefore be absolutely no solution other than a ban in all public places.”

I suppose it’d be predictable and trite to quote the Deleuze and Guattari Faciality plateau here. So that’s what I’ll do. But which part exactly? This one is good: Continue reading The veil

Black bloc, democracy, and the one

I didn’t really pay attention to the G8/G20 summit protests in Toronto, either the events themselves or the preparations for them, but I have been reading a lot of the postgame commentary. The reason for the former is that at this date I don’t find summit-protest politics all that compelling; if the first wave of actions attempted to both disrupt the summits’ proceedings and create new political assemblages, the habitual impulse to protest since then seems to have accomplished very little of that. Continue reading Black bloc, democracy, and the one

Tedious and infuriating

As a sort of follow-up to and confirmation of this post, Wendy Brown has circulated a snitty email condemning the alleged student violence that occurred at the UC chancellor’s house last month:

I will now give you my personal view of the arrests on Friday morning. In contrast to the peaceful and relatively responsible occupation during the week, some of the occupiers were planning a concert to which they hoped to draw a couple thousand people and which had no provisions for crowd control, fire regulations or substance controls. It could easily have resulted in anything from the whole building being trashed to kids being trampled to death. It was also likely to come into conflict with a final taking place in Wheeler Auditorium at 8 AM the next morning. The posters invited people to stay “until the cops kick in the door.” I don’t know what naivete or hubris or pure stupidity led the organizers of this event to imagine this was really going to happen. Frankly, between those plans and then the desperate cry to the faculty that went out to the faculty following the arrests — for bail, for assistance in reducing sentences, for rides back to Berkeley from Santa Rita, for retrieving backpacks from Wheeler, and for lenience on paper deadlines, I feel like we’re dealing with 10 year olds. It’s tedious, it’s infuriating and its wasting a lot of valuable time and energy while the greatest public university in the world is slipping away from us. It is also not lost on any of us that the number of students involved in this bullshit is remarkably tiny but that it has and will continue to drive away many other students who at one time were eager to become activists on behalf of the preserving the University of California. Indeed, what is striking in the anonymously forwarded garbage below is that there is not one mention of saving the university, only excitement about violence. The “cause,” if there ever was one, seems to have disappeared. (via)