The End of Capitalism

Almost no one denies, in our own age, that the cult of Capital is the all-encompassing, ubiquitous horizon through which various subjectivities are constituted and certain individuals are given clear advantage over others; a totalizing system which has become increasingly difficult to resist and harder to escape. What ingredients of political thought, then, are adept to critically interrogate the comfortable normality of the capitalist social machine and provide an actual process of transformation so that the way things are might be otherwise, an account that has real worldly-historical purchase?

Convincing as this account may first appear—the vision of households, subjects, and industry coming together and operating in harmony under capitalist hegemony—there is more going on here then simply raising the thorny issue of how we break away from the static scene of Capital. On closer inspection this monolithic image is problematic insofar as it represents social existence (economy, polity, culture, subjectivity…) as part of the same complex (e.g., capitalist hegemony). Although theorists delineate capitalist hegemony as a unified, singular, and totalizing entity in the hope to see it destabilized or replaced, they nonetheless generate a representation of the social world that is endowed with performative force. As J.K. Gibson-Graham argue in The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), “The project of understanding the beast has itself produced a beast.”

But the economic classification of an increasingly capitalist world system is a product of (dominant) discourse only. It does not reflect actuality. Capitalism, rather, is at loose ends with itself. An alternative social depiction to capitalist hegemony thus “might represent economic practice as comprising a rich diversity of capitalist and noncapitalist activities and argue that the noncapitalist ones had until now been relatively ‘invisible’ because the concepts and discourses that could make them ‘visible’ have themselves been marginalized and suppressed.” We might begin with, for instance, the proliferation of the self-employed who appropriate their own surplus labor or the uncounted work of unpaid domestic laborers who invisibly reproduce society.

It is illegitimate and inaccurate to speak of capitalism in terms of a unifying entity (in the same way it would be to speak of the US as a Christian nation, or a heterosexual one) because such social descriptors erase and obscure differences. While feminists have long departed from “holistic expressions for social structure”, conceptions of capitalism as hegemonic, ubiquitous, systematic and so on are still prevalent and resilient.

It follows from this virtually unquestioned view of capitalism as the dominant form of economy that noncapitalist and anti-capitalist sites come to inhabit the social margins in the realm of experiment (as recently illustrated over at Necessary Agitation). As J.K. Gibson-Graham contend: “it is the way capitalism has been ‘thought’ that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supersession.” (There is little doubt that the archive of my blog unflatteringly reflects the same point). As the authors go on to argue, what needs to be fostered instead is a theory of “economic difference;” conditions under which the economy might be “less subject to definitional closure,” whose identity is not fixed or singular.

The alternative of “theorizing economic difference, of supplanting the discourse of capitalist hegemony with a plurality and heterogeneity of economic forms” is akin to what Manuel DeLanda attempts in ‘Deleuze, Materialism and Politics’. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of double articulation (the selection of materials out of a wide set of possibilities—first articulation—and the arrangement of these loosely ordered materials into a more stable form—second articulation) with which to conceptualize the process through which material form and identity are generated, DeLanda extends this micro-macro distinction to strata operating at infinitely different scales (rather than only two levels of scale: ‘the molecular’ and ‘the molar’).

According to DeLanda, “double articulation is, in its simplest version, the process of joining parts to yield a whole with properties of its own. Since most component parts are smaller than the whole they compose, the part-to-whole relation is a relation between small and large scales.” It would be a mistake, however, to treat the macro and micro as absolute scales. There are never only two scales operating in material or social processes: every entity that is perceived as an autonomous whole is itself populated by component parts, and those parts in turn have their own parts…. “A more adequate approach,” argues DeLanda, “would be to treat them as relative to a particular scale.”

For this reason it is problematic to employ terms like ‘society as a whole’ in our theorizing, for the largest entities are every bit as singular and unique as the smallest. “In general, what needs to be excluded from a materialist social ontology are vague, reified terms like ‘society’ (or ‘the market’, ‘the state’, etc.) Only hacceities (individual singularities) operating at different spatio-temporal scales should be legitimate entities in this ontology.”

The need to keep scale distinctions in mind is particularly evident when considering political economy, as noted by J.K. Gibson-Graham above. DeLanda is similarly uneasy with all-encompassing terms like ‘capitalist society’ or the ‘capitalist system’, but takes his cues from Fernand Braudel’s The Perspective of the World who, in 1986, said that “We should not be too quick to assume that capitalism embraces the whole of western society, that it accounts for every stitch in the social fabric.” Rather than simply interested in the ontological clarification of stratum functioning at different levels of scale, DeLanda sees a political implication here: “Politically it is impossible to effect any real social change if the targets of one’s interventions are non-existent entities.” If the target of protestors is some vague generality, such as ‘the global capitalist system,’ the likelihood at being effective in their interventions is low, even if the movement is well-theorized.

DeLanda’s concern over the lack of real targets in social justice movements echoes Levi Bryant’s response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, who similarly argues here that OWSers have lost sight of the concrete. Both seem to come to the same conclusion: challenging the capitalist social system without engaging at the infrastructural dimension will end up “leaving the basic structure of the system in tact.”



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2 responses to “The End of Capitalism”

  1. billrosethorn says :

    I am intrigued by your’s and other’s critique of the concept of capitalism as a total global structure that pervades the fabric of society. I agree that such a claim of hegemony sometimes makes particular struggles against capitalist and fascist abstract machines hard to formulate when capitalism is said to constitute the entirety of our “system.” Capitalism works on the micro-level of subjective desires as well as the macro by giving a sense of freedom and autonomy from accessing a few channels for obtaining desired objects.

    However, I believe that occupiers are working and thinking on a double level as well when they take aim at capitalist corporations and make impossible demands. On the one hand we attack the expansion of market flows into politics, as when lobbyists buy the loyalty of politicians, or even when we protest & march to raise awareness; on the other we manage a micro-city within a city that trains each other on how to practice non-predatory forms of community (as opposed to capitalist flows that delve as deep into the desire of as many possible number of the masses).

    Contrary to DeLanda, I think targeting non-existent entities is necessary in effecting political change, and many other occupiers I know agree with on this point (the radical zine’s are rife with this language). What is real as far as political goals and victories is only definable within current standards of possibility, and one never knows just how powerful an effect changing the symbolic, imaginary players assigned to flows will have on those flow’s movement and direction. Such is what I believe the trap of materialism to be; language and the imaginary can change the constitution of forces for they are a crucial way in which societies direct desire. I’m sure I could back this up with some Deleuze, and I plan to integrate his thought with the occupy phenomenon.

    • Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

      Thank you for the comment. I completely agree that social movements must often work at different registers (the material, the linguistic…). Most of my work is precisely a narrow focus on the macro category of capitalism rather than an acknowledgment of the complexity of the notion itself. In this light, perhaps, my post on capitalism here is merely an overdue turn to examining the micro as well. With respect to Deleuze and Guattari, I think one can make the case that both movements are present there as well: the inherent rhythm of capitalism is, after all, characteristic of simultaneous tendencies towards decomposition and preservation (macro). In other instances, the authors draw attention to the specific activities taking place under the umbrella of capitalism that must be engaged and sent racing (micro). I think you are quite right to note that OWS is, in a part, a Deleuzian movement.

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