Have you ever felt totaled? In this book, Colin Cremin tackles the overbearing truth that capitalism encompasses the totality of our social relations, having woven itself deeply into the fabric of what it means to be human. He shows how the capitalist system totalizes everything in its path, as evidenced in industrialized warfare, modern surveillance, commodification, and political control. With ever deepening social crises and ecological catastrophes this system threatens civilization as we know it. But among the wreckage of capitalism, Cremin argues, we can still find functioning parts, machines to be salvaged. To do so, it is imperative that we be able to both imagine and realize a future other than the apocalypticism forewarned by scientists, prescribed by economists, accommodated by politicians, and made into spectacle by the entertainment industry. Totalled maps the deteriorating socio-economic, political, and ecological conditions in which we live. Yet Cremin asks how a utopian possibility discernable in the power of human creation can be realized even though as a society we are bound up materially, ideologically, libidinallytotallyto the capitalist machine of destruction. Totalled concludes with a politically and economically grounded set of propositions on how we might begin to imagine such a possibility.
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About the Author
Colin Cremin is author of Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis and iCommunism. He teaches sociology at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa / New Zealand.
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Materially Determined Apocalypse
An excess of nature, the iridescent feathers of the peacock displayed to attract mates also, by their cumbersome weight, make their owners easy prey for hungry predators. Our human excesses are by contrast discerned in the objects created first in the mind before being fashioned by the body, stone made architectural wonder, iron made blade, civilisation a document of barbarism as Walter Benjamin once said. History does not end with the cutting of a ribbon to unveil a new monument, rather it continues in our every wandering motion. In contrast to the feathers of the peacock that are a chance mutation, the excesses of human civilisation are the result of self-conscious and collective activity. Not in a million years but in a matter of decades can we discern massive changes to our social environment that have brought about discernable changes in the character of the individual that in turn give rise to possibilities hitherto beyond the scope of a more archaic imagination.
Capitalism is not the result of natural mutation or developed from a singular design. For Max Weber it is an unintended consequence of a Calvinist belief in predestination. The chosen could not be known in advance of an ascent to heaven but clues could be discerned on earth by one's industry. Protestantism thereby entered into a pact with the work ethic as a gateway to heaven, enterprise became a new religion divorced from its godly provenance. For Marx, capitalism was born from the alienation of labour from immediate production, through forced dispossession and the force of necessity. As Marx wrote,
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. (2001 : 915)
A recurring theme of history, dispossession continues apace, with financial elites leaching off the productive economy as their politically entrenched allies open new possibilities for the expropriation of common property. An asymmetrical warfare is being fought on the provisions of life. Governments scythe daisy-cutter style through regulatory frameworks that once held the commodity at bay, as labour is caught between the rock of a low-wage economy and the hard place of mass unemployment. In this war, whose victims are nameless, dead eyes in the mirror reflect a utopian desire to become a privileged object of exchange. It is an unending struggle to become more exploitable than others, paid for by mortgaging future labour to an education in becoming fit for exploitation. Here artistic creation is recycled from a cloth industry torn from our backs and sold as objects said to increase satisfaction but actually small recompense for a class that lost the world. The victor's banner is everywhere a commodity: the land, the biosphere, genetic code, social infrastructure, public services, prisons and military apparatuses; mind, body and spirit. Neoliberalism is our legacy that stretches into the future, an everyday encounter in the commercial thoroughfares of now standardised town centres, in schools that educate us in the art of the statistical average and in hospitals where key services are parcelled out to private contractors. To breathe this air today is to inhale the stench of a billion living deaths.
Unlike the Protestant belief in predestination, the more secularised end-of-the-world prophecies today offer no redemption, spur no industry, provoke no revolution. By bringing Freud's theories of the human drives together with Marx's materialist analysis of history, we can examine the forces, both libidinal and capitalistic, that have set us on a path towards an apocalypse of a kind, but one in which there remains, however dystopian our situation, a faint possibility of redemption. Not by the hand of God or the market will this happen, not by chance mutation, but rather by the collective action of angry, disenfranchised and indebted masses. This chapter expands on some basic concepts from Freud, relaying them through more contemporary Marxist critical theory, to establish a foundation for later analysis and argumentation. Adopting this materialist approach, the chapter aims to distinguish the apocalypticism of our own age from that of the past.
Like steam in a boiling kettle, our capacity to adjust our surroundings through social activity, a vital activity described by Freud as libidinal, requires an outlet. In psychoanalytic theory, society acts like a spout to direct that force either coercively or, in more open systems, towards its dissipation in a broad range of socially useful activities: art, cultural production, work and so forth. For Bataille, this force or energy is an 'accursed share' that can be expended 'gloriously' in open systems or 'catastrophically' in closed ones (1999 [1946-49]). Gendered assumptions notwithstanding, the fatal flaw in Freud's dynamic theories of the human personality is their lack of critique of society - the society to which Freud claimed our libidinal energies must be sacrificed. Without such a critique, psychoanalysis, as Adorno pointed out, accommodates 'the ruling social norm' (2007 : 274). By bringing Freud and Marx together, critical theory addresses this lacuna: Marcuse by way of synthesis, Deleuze and Guattari by postulating Oedipus as a symptom and psychoanalysis as an ally of capital.
Capitalism, say Deleuze and Guattari, is an axiomatic that thrives on 'decoded flows of desire'. It is a not a closed system at all, but rather a system of 'anti-production' for the capture of desire, which for them is simply a force without object that wants nothing and lacks nothing. Capitalism manufactures a permanent space for surplus value that a guilt-ridden subject aims to fill. Progression coincides with destruction, in a system of never-ending and expanding crises that deterritorialises or decodes in order to reterritorialise or recode, to produce 'lack amid overabundance, but stupidity in the midst ofknowledge and science' (Deleuze and Guattari, 2003a : 236). Capital has learnt from social machines, from the dynamics, instabilities and antagonisms of different formations or assemblages that fuel the flames of history. These feed 'on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate'. Capitalism will not end by attrition nor by contradiction because 'the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenises, the better it works, the American way' (Deleuze and Guattari, 2003a : 151). The function of the Oedipal complex is to ensure that people freely submit to this operation. Daddy threatens punishment for crimes of the mind: through progressive stages of socialisation we learn that desire is fundamentally incestuous or destructive and so learn to want to divert libidinal energy into tasks deemed socially productive. There is a lack to perpetually fill, exemplified today, as Maurizio Lazzarato (2012) points out, in personal indebtedness, the fear of a creditor, and what they might do if we fail to keep up our payments. In this age of austerity, indebtedness is seen as a symptom of unrestrained desire.
Whereas for Deleuze and Guattari desire (fundamentally at least) has no object, for Freud the entire libidinal economy is predicated on the relationship between the subject of desire and the object that gives pleasure. Pleasure is the base motive of human desire, not need as such. This seems evident whenever we prolong hunger or thirst by refusing bread and water until there is a prepared meal or flavoured drink at hand. The object of love is culturally mediated. Eros, or the pleasure principle, goes through a series of detours in order to attain the object. It freely submits to the reality principle by recognising in society a higher law that both rewards and punishes. Reality is after all a matter of intemperate climates and contingent hurricanes, against which society, like a shelter or the mother's breast, provides comfort and security. Eros wants to avoid unpleasure, which it minimises by preserving its energy for socially necessary tasks. In this sense Eros is a self-conserving drive. As Freud explained,
Under the influence of the ego's instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure. (2010 : 3717)
In societies with a limited division of labour, our desires are given over to the basic necessities of survival. In societies with a complex division of labour, such as our own, the means of production are more developed and the link between sacrifice of erotic energies and survival is more tenuous, at least outside of the slums and dead zones of anti-production. By way of caricature, in societies described by anthropologists as primitive, hunger was sated from meat pulled by teeth from the bone, now, in optimal conditions, raw produce no longer harvested by the consumer is transformed into culinary delights to impress friends at dinner parties.
The sphere of pleasure thus expands as culture refines the object for a more intense satisfaction. For civilisation to progress, the tenuous link between subject and society is maintained by increased feelings of guilt and social responsibility. A progressively more repressive superego keeps the primal drives of the id in check via the mediating ego, further draining energy from Eros, giving rise to resentments that in turn make the subject more prone to destructive outbursts. These can manifest collectively in riots, rebellions and revolutions. By resulting in more sophisticated apparatuses of repression, perhaps due to the guilt felt by participants after the event, revolutions that ultimately fail can for Freud, in this respect at least, be positive. This image is redolent in the burden of guilt carried by generations of workers for daring and ultimately failing to seize control of production and generalise prosperity in the name of communism.
The initial position of the Father as punishing authority and ideal ego/ role model is supplanted and multiplied in various institutions that we recognise today as schools, prisons, media industries and so forth. It is the reality principle, concretised in the education system, the workplace and shopping mall, an 'empirical hard core ... system of institutions, which are the established and frozen relationships among men' (Marcuse, 2002 : 195). As Marcuse bitterly observed, 'The individual pays by sacrificing his time, his consciousness, his dreams; civilisation pays by sacrificing its own promise of liberty, justice and peace for all' (2006 : 100).
A greater portion of erotic energies is drained into the accumulation process along detours to a vanishing point in which the return becomes proportionately smaller. As Marcuse wrote, 'The irreconcilable conflict is not between work (reality principle) and Eros (pleasure principle), but between alienated labour (performance principle) and Eros' (2006 : 47). Alienated labour weakens the creative power of Eros and in turn makes the subject more vulnerable to violent outbursts. Eros gives way to Thanatos, a drive towards achieving a former state of constant gratification blocked by the reality principle and manifesting in repetitive behaviour, extracting pleasure from the painful experience of being deprived happiness. The death drive aims for Nirvana, not to bring about the end to life but rather an end to pain and suffering. Alienated labour exacerbates this tendency, hence, according to Marcuse, by ending it lived experience would be closer to the oceanic love the subject craves. Through 'the quantitative reduction in labour time', Eros would absorb Thanatos leading 'to a qualitative change in the human existence ... The expanding realm of freedom becomes truly a realm of play - of the free play of individual faculties' (2006 : 222). Given the obvious connotations of the more individuated pleasures associated today with mass consumption, this does not in any way imply that liberation is simply the equivalent of self-expression. As Marcuse wrote in response to the new individualism that arose during the 1960s: 'no revolution without individual liberation, but also no individual liberation without the liberation of society' (1972: 48). This was, however, already made clear in 1956 when Eros and Civilisation was published, in which Marcuse stressed that the release of libido is destructive if it is not sublimated self-consciously and collectively. The Nirvana Principle of a life without tension is the utopian core of apocalyptic fantasies that dominate the westernised imaginary today.
The condition of scarcity is for Freud the reality principle that necessitates discontentment in the form of libidinal sacrifice. Yet, as has become clear, the more Eros services Capital, the greater is the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few and the poorer and more disenfranchised the majority of people become. Eros, as previously noted and as Lacan stresses, is a self-conserving drive. It does not want revolution but rather stability. The obvious rejoinder is that self-conservation under conditions of instability, insecurity and deprivation would rationally at least demand revolution. Lacan reserves this for the unquenchable and derailing death drive, which he associates with the concept of jouissance, a drive that, unlike desire which strives for something tangible, derives pleasure in the aim. Drive circulates around a non-existent thing, in Lacanian parlance the 'objet petit a' or 'object cause' of desire. Real jouissance is that brief moment of ecstasy, a little death, typically identified in orgasm. Symbolic jouissance is the fantasy of the Other's enjoyment, in popular media the glamour of celebrity and 'how the other half live. Imaginary jouissance is an ersatz enjoyment of an object, the kind of partial enjoyment we sometimes derive from consumer goods, an enjoyment that can from the perspective of symbolic jouissance often feel like an obligation: the injunction to enjoy, to have fun, to live life to the full as others appear to and in the manner that only commodities permit. There is no object that can satisfy drive, the thing is never 'it'. As Kesel writes, 'at the imaginary and symbolic levels, the desiring subject can have this impression, namely in the experience of jouissance. At the level of the real however, the drive does not reach its "thing"' (2009: 170). Jouissance can, in each of these respects, operate both materially and ideologically to aid in the realisation of profit from our investments in the production of surplus value.
Different ontologies that draw on, and sometimes challenge, the same theoretical propositions, have in common an understanding of the relationship between human drives or desires and the development of capitalism. For Marx, this is the species-defining capacity or vital force that we deploy to transform our surroundings and therein our own nature. For Marcuse the name for this force is Eros. For Lacan it is the reverse side of Eros, the destructive Thanatos that he identifies with the unquenchable surplus jouissance. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that everything emanates from a singular plane of immanence, and that differences are manifestations of varying intensities that assemble and disassemble in a constant state of becoming. These forces and assemblages fire up the abstract machine of capital, just as, for Marx, labour power is the source of surplus value. There are different purposes for which each of these theoretical contributions can help explain and unravel the predicament that this book identifies the whole of human society to be in. The value of this approach can be ascertained according to what it achieves, namely that it does indeed help us to understand, explain and develop a persuasive critique of current subjective and thereby social conditions as well as make propositions for transforming them.
Excerpted from "Totalled"
Copyright © 2015 Colin Cremin.
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Table of Contents
1. Year Zero
2. Materially Determined Apocalypse
3. The Three Orders of Apocalypse
4. The Double Helix of Dissatisfaction
5. Production Spiral
6. Consumption Spiral
7. Banquets of Worlds
8. Clash of Axioms