Objectified: The "Austerity" Economics of "New Materialism"
In the contemporary moment, the bourgeois left has seemingly been "moved" by an ethical spirit to abandon questions of textuality in order to return to questions of reality. Whether it is the "posthuman" turn (Derrida's The Animal that Therefore I Am, Agamben's The Open, and Esposito's Bios) or the rise of "eco-criticism" and "apocalyptic" studies (Cohen et al.'s Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change), there is a rising concern among the writings of the North Left with the ways in which "human" society is said to be treating the "non-human" world and which can no longer be reduced to the slippages of the signifier. In the recently published anthology New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics, to take only one prominent example, editors Diana Coole and Samantha Frost argue that confronted with an unprecedented series of social and ecological contradictions which threaten both human and non-human life, what is necessary is a "radical reappraisal" (2) of the dominant understandings of the world in order to account for the "unprecedented things [which] are currently being done with and to matter, nature, life, production and reproduction" (4). According to Coole and Frost,
what is at stake…is nothing less than a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world, including its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor on, exploit, and interact with nature. (4)
While, on the surface, what is being represented as a planetary ethics of the kind Derrida calls "unconditional hospitality" (Of Hospitality 25) might appear to introduce a new level of attention to the effects to the capitalist system of production, what is actually at work in the North Left's deconstruction of the "normative sense of the human" is an erasure of the very causes of the contradictions of contemporary life, namely the exploitation of labor that is at the core of capitalism itself. In other words, under the guise of a new focus on the global and the economic, what is actually meant by "New Materialism" is the same dematerializing of reality that has long fascinated left theory. This new "ethical" turn toward "reality" is, in actuality, the ideology of "caring" capitalism for an age of austerity.
However, before examining the claim of the "New Materialists" that central to the contradictions of global capitalism is a flawed set of cultural assumptions which "normalize" the relations between humanity and nature and, in turn, reduce the non-human world to little more than the objects of a destructive instrumental logic, it is necessary to examine the material conditions which constitute the world in which we live. In other words, in order to understand arguments about the world, we must begin not with "assumptions" about humanity, but rather in the conditions which exist outside of those assumptions, in the material conditions of production.
To begin with, "reality"—by which I mean the complex social, political, and economic interactions which constitute what is commonsensically represented as the "everyday"—is, as Marx writes, "nothing but the begetting of man through human labor" (Economic 92). That is to say, human existence—from the most basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter, to more complex cultural and social needs for art and ideas—is entirely the product of human labor. As Marx explains in Capital I,
as labour is a creator of use value, is useful labor, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and nature, and therefore no life. (53)
In other words, regardless of whether it is a tree which is turned into lumber, food which is grown and harvested, oil which is removed from deep in the earth, or an abstract painting of a landscape, none of these objects would exist as useful objects without human labor. It is the ability of human labor to objectify the world that makes society possible. That the basis of "reality" is constituted by human labor means that we cannot separate debates over what constitutes "reality" from the ways in which human labor is organized, namely the mode of production. As Marx writes,
Each of [our] human relations to the world—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, being aware, sensing, wanting, acting, loving—in short, all the organs of [our] individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are in their objective orientation, or in their orientation to the object, the appropriation of the human world; their orientation to the object is the manifestation of the human world. (Economic 87)
No matter whether we are discussing how individuals experience the world on a local level or whether we are talking about broad cultural frameworks which come to dominate a society at a particular time, these are the expressions of the level of development of what Marx called the "social fabric" of humanity, namely the development of labor at a particular historical moment (Economic 86).
Insofar as "reality" is the product of labor, debates over the status of "reality" and the objects and relations within it are, in turn, reflections of labor relations at the level of consciousness. Under capitalism, it is the exploitation of labor which shapes all debates over reality. For example, debates over the status of "reality" and "objectivity" in some of the foundational texts of bourgeois theory—namely, the empiricism of Locke, Hume and Bacon, in which human interactions with the world were said to be reflections of the senses; the transcendental cognition of Kant's critique in which the focus shifts from a posteriori reflection to the a priori existence of concepts; and the Hegelian critique of both empiricism and Kant's transcendental philosophy in favor of a dialectical understanding of the interrelations of subjective and objective reality—are less a progressive unfolding of an idea, or a "normative" reduction of existence to human agency, but reflect the contradictory forces and relations of labor that both drive and limit capitalist society. As Engels writes in the Dialectics of Nature, "If, after the dark night of the Middle Ages was over, the sciences suddenly arose anew with undreamt-of force, developing at a miraculous rate, once again we owe this miracle to production" (466). In other words, the emergence of scientific practices in the West and the turn away from religious superstitions was not a fortuitous "event," but is understandably the result of systemic economic imperatives that derived from such changes in production as the enclosure of the commons, the commodification of labor, the universalizing of private ownership of the means of production, and the opening up of the world market, all of which rewarded technological innovation and rationalization.
This connection between ideas and material conditions is why it is not surprising that Locke should open his foundational work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by situating his inquiry into the basis of human knowledge in everyday life. He writes, "our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct" and that what "concerns our conduct" is the same as a sailor who may not be about to "fathom all the depths of the ocean" nonetheless must know "the length of his line" (65). That is to say, this allusion to sailing is not a simply a random reference, but one which reflects the importance of a growing international commerce, something which is central to Locke's arguments about labor and the value of land in which he defends colonization as producing value through a more productive use of labor than indigenous populations were said to have developed: "it is labour…which puts the greatest part of value upon land without which it would scarcely be worth anything" (Two Treatises on Government 26). In addition, it demonstrates that questions of epistemology and ontology are at the same time always questions about the organization of production that is their basis. When Locke proposes that "the senses at first let in particular ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet [of the mind]" before "the mind further abstracts them and by degrees learns the use of general names" (72) he is speaking about and from a society which is benefiting from the developments of labor in objectifying the world and, in turn, requires further scientific advances as a means for increasing the productivity of labor as the basis of social development. In other words, Locke's empiricism is not simply a defense of science, but it is a defense of science under the specific historical conditions of an emerging capitalist economy. One sees in Locke's empiricism both a kind of spontaneous materialism in which the senses are taken in their immediacy as the basis of an object's "value," and, at the same time, the emerging ideology of what Marx called "commodity fetishism" or the ways in "the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour" (Capital Vol. I 83). When Locke argues that "the ideas of primary qualities of bodies are resemblances of them and their patterns really do exist in the bodies themselves" and yet that "the ideas produced in us by these secondary qualities have no resemblance in them at all" (114), it is a reflection of a society in which the value of an object is not tied only to what it "is" (its use-value), but is developing a value above and beyond its use (namely, its exchange value on the market). It is a world that both requires the empiricism of science to unlock labor productivity, but at the same time one in which the value of the commodities produced is no longer based solely on their use.
It is the growing force of capitalism's elevation of exchange value over use value which frames Kant's attempts to combine the empiricism of Locke and Hume with the idealism of their religious challengers, such as Berkeley. In Critique of Pure Reason, while Kant agrees with Locke and argues that "there is no doubt whatever that all our cognition begins with experience" (136), he nonetheless opens a space between "reality" as it is experienced and objects in reality as they exist independently of the immediacies of experience, ultimately placing the conditions of existence beyond the realm of human understanding. This is what Kant calls the distinction between "beings of sense (phaenomena)" and things which "are not objects of our senses at all" or "beings of understanding (noumena)" (360). In formulating this distinction, Kant expands upon Locke's initial separation between the immediacies of experience and conceptual knowledge by dividing "reality" into entirely separate realms of perception and actuality. He could begin to see the contradictions within the object, but reduces these contradictions to "antimonies" between perception and the material world. While objects might be perceptible at a sensory level, according to Kant "the objective validity of sensible cognition" is limited and does not exhaust an object's possible meanings at the transcendental level of "pure understanding" (362). That is to say, if Locke's arguments about the empirical basis of knowledge reflected a world in which the developments in the productivity of labor required a more scientific approach, Kant's transcendentalism is the expression of a world in which the productivity of labor advanced the capacities of human society beyond the "reality" of local and immediate experience, requiring a much more abstract and complex understanding of the world.
As Hegel remarks in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, "whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts" (11) and it is in Hegel's critiques of empiricism and transcendentalism that bourgeois philosophy reflects the dialectical advances of science and labor into the understanding of nature and society, while at the same time obscuring the material basis of reality in human labor. As Hegel argues, while the British empiricists start from the idea that the sensory world alone is "the source of truth" (Encyclopedia 62), the effect of this logic is that insofar as objects "portray themselves as indifferent to external determinations, they appear to be independent and offer resistance" (120). In other words, empiricism cannot account for the transitional nature of objects and how they both develop and change in response to internal and external stimuli. The problem is that the appearance of matter as "impenetrable" ultimately tells us "nothing else than that matter exists" (150). At the same time, Hegel continues, while "Kantian philosophy…investigated the value of concepts of understanding used in metaphysics, and found that they do not derive from sensory perception, but belong rather to the spontaneity of thought" (63), we are once again unable to understand the material world as dialectical, in which the object is "just as much a differentiated multiplicity in itself as an identity of differences" (120). Kant, he writes, "assumed that the reflective categories of attraction and repulsion were ready-made, and further, he presupposed that the category of the reflection itself, out of which matter should emerge, is ready-made" (152). On the contrary, Hegel argues, objects exist both in terms of identity and difference, and that our relation to objects is itself caught up in the process of becoming. Reality is not static, as empiricists claim, nor ultimately unknowable, as Kant proposes, but instead requires a dialectical mode of thinking which grasps the relation between self and other, being and nothingness, totality and individuality. Hegel writes,
the dialectic has a positive result because it has determinate content, and because the result is not really empty, abstract nothingness, but the negation of certain determinations…this rational moment, although it is thought and abstract entity, is at the same time concrete, not because it is a simple formal unity, but because it is the unity of different determinations. (Encyclopedia 58)
In other words, an object exists as a contradictory process of negation between being and becoming and it is in the idea, a product of human reason, that one finds "the absolute unity of the concept and objectivity" (120). Unlike Kant, for Hegel the subjective and the objective are not distinct and independent realms, but exist in a dialectic relation of becoming and negation in which each is in the other.
Using Hegel's own articulation of philosophy as a reflection of society, Hegel's dialectic reflects a world in which, as Lukŕcs argues,
the great discoveries of the natural sciences, the historical experience of centuries teeming with revolutions, had shaken, even in the concrete, everyday image of the world, the age-old supremacy of an eternal, stationary, unmoved substantiality, the absolute predominance of a primary, thing-like objectivity, as against a motion conceived as secondary. (Ontology 64)
However, Lukŕcs continues, the problem with Hegel's idealist articulation of the dialectic is that "Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself" (28). That is, Hegel, while theorizing "reality" as the relation of subjectivity and objectivity, ultimately sided with the subjective aspect of social relations. While recognizing that "human nature only really exists in an achieved community," it was for Hegel "an achieved community of minds" (emphasis mine) (Hegel, Encyclopedia 41). Marx's revolutionary approach, and what enables Marxism to be a transformative theory of society rather than a simply descriptive one, was to turn Hegel's dialectic upside down by explaining why "general consciousness is only the theoretical shape of that of which the living shape is the real community" (Economic 86). In other words, it is not ideas of reality which shape existence, but existence made possible by human labor that shapes ideas.
So, for example, as Lukŕcs points out, it is through Marx's historical materialist articulation of the dialectic that we can grasp the way in which labor shapes the objects around us that constitute what appears as "reality":
the stones that happened to be lying around, from which primitive man selected those suitable for his cutting requirements, and left the unsuitable behind, were in this case suitable or unsuitable by virtue of their natural form, but this property could only be actualized in and by human labor; in the simple existence of the stone it would remain a never realized possibility". (Ontology 46)
While some stones might be hard but malleable, and other stones soft and unfit for cutting, it is not their simple existence which determines their use. Rather, it is human labor which objectifies reality and, in turn, makes the objects of reality, as Marx explains, "an objectively human relation to itself and to man" (Economic 87). This is why reality—the relations between people, objects, nature, and ideas—are "the manifestation of the human world" (Economic 87) and it is only from the perspective of labor that we can understand the objects and relations which constitute "reality" as it is experienced.
It is only by beginning outside of "reality," in the material conditions of existence determined by labor, that we can understand why debates over "reality" are always part of the broader class struggle over the material resources produced by labor and, in turn, over the whole structure of production in which the exploitation of labor produces massive wealth for a few and poverty for the many. In a new era of capitalist crises, when "New Materialist" writers such as Timothy Morton call for a return to reality through an "Object-Oriented Ontology" in which reality is compared to "magic," because "what we take to be the object 'behind' its appearance is really a kind of perspective trick caused by a habitual normalization of the object in question," it becomes clear that the North Left's mystification of reality is being celebrated and endlessly published not because it enables people to understand the world around them, but because it prevents anyone from understanding it. In other words, at the core of the definition of "realism" as accepting "some contradictions are true"—by which Morton means un-dialectical, without negation, and therefore beyond transformation—is the acquiescence of left theory to the ongoing rule of capital.
"New Materialism" is said by its advocates to provide a more "dynamic" yet "grounded" approach to social issues than the past half-century of "playful" bourgeois theory, and thus a more responsible agent for the "austerity" age. The problem, as the editors of the New Materialisms anthology claim, is that we are now facing a series of critical issues—from environmental destruction to financial meltdown—but
if there is a lesson to be learned from recent events associated with subprime lending and the consequent banking crisis, it is how few people any longer grasp the complexities of the deregulated financial system, and yet how many are affected in so many places worldwide and in such immediately material ways, by any hiatus in financial markets. (Coole and Frost 31)
In other words, the more interconnected individuals are within the global system of production, the less they understand it. It is such that the proponents of New Materialism maintain that the very complexities of contemporary life expose the impossibility of knowing the causes of the financial crisis as part of any economic totality. They write although "phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces" (9) the interconnected nature of reality requires an "eclectic combination of approaches" (28) which combines "biopolitics, critical geopolitics, and political economy with genealogies and phenomenologies of everyday life" (28). This hermeneutic eclecticism, they state, is necessary in order to recognize the way in which any "determination within dynamic systems is nonlinear" and thus "terminal effects cannot be construed as possibilities that were already latent in some initial moment" (14). In other words, there is no way of knowing or distinguishing cause from effect, base from superstructure, economics from politics or culture. They conclude that "no workable version" of what they are calling "New Materialism" will "advance a historical metanarrative, aspire to the identification of determining economic laws, valorize an originary, pristine nature, or envisage communism as history's idealized material destiny" (30). Far from understanding the social totality, they are positing that the very existence of the social totality is a paradox: an "absolute" knowledge that society is a multiplicity which can never be understood as such. In trying to appear "relevant" by talking about issues of environmental catastrophe, financial crisis, and economic inequality, they make sure to let their readers know they are "beyond Marx" and are not committed to fighting against capitalism for the revolutionary new that is socialism. In other words, their contradictory embrace of an non-causal materialism is not simply a logical flaw in their argument—a theory undone by its own internal aporias, as a deconstructionist might claim—but a class-interested ideology that actively blocks knowledge of the social totality. Despite the fact that "the problem of ambiguity is very real"—that is to say, that reality is increasingly complex—this does not mean that "these paradoxical manifestations must remain forever indecipherable and unsettled" (Novack 323). As Engels explains in response to the limits of Kantianism,
in Kant's time our knowledge of natural objects was indeed so fragmentary that he might well suspect, behind the little we knew about each of them, a mysterious "thing-in-itself." But one after another these ungraspable things have been grasped, analyzed, and, what is more, reproduced by the giant progress of science; and what we can produce we certainly cannot consider as unknowable. ("Introduction" 266)
The New Materialists' image of a world in which cause and effect are blurred is in actuality an economic theory in which the immaterialities of finance and consumption are presented as having overcome the reality of production. This is the ideological reflection of a reality devoid of labor in the interests of capital.
It is by blurring social relations behind a veil of transcendental materialism that although such an approach might appear to some to be "flexible" and "open" to "new developments," it actually obscures the essential basis of these "new developments" in the exploitation of labor. The ideological implications of this logic are drawn out and made clear in Jason Edwards' contribution to the New Materialisms collection, "The Materialism of Historical Materialism." He too suggests that
much of the political analysis that appears in poststructuralist literature effectively resorts to a form of liberal multicultural and identity politics that seems blind or indifferent to the major problems faced by all humans today: climate change, global inequality, forced migration and new forms of slavery, and the proliferation of military technology and warfare. (282)
In contrast, Edwards claims to be concerned with producing "an ongoing analysis of the current social and political conditions of contemporary capitalist societies in light of their historical development, their embedded institutions and practices, and the contingent circumstances that serve to reproduce them—or threaten their reproduction—over time" (282). What such an analysis amounts to, he proposes, is the need to grasp capitalism as "a complex totality" (286) in which "the character of these practices in any given setting is not easily or neatly drawn out on a conceptual tableau in which the economic has primacy and is a straight forward synonym of the material" (284). He writes that "the materialism of historical materialism should be seen as more of a heuristic for social and political study, rather than a set of explanatory theses" (282). In other words, the role of theory should be to make educated, experiential guesses about reality with no hope of understanding how different aspects of that reality are connected, rather than attempt to understand and explain reality as a totality.
It is in this context that we can begin to see the way in which what is being called "New Materialism" is about putting forward a theory of "reality" in which the exploitation of labor is rendered secondary to a diverse "network" of exchanges, and the relations between capital and labor, production and consumption, ideology and science,… are rendered fuzzy and indistinguishable. It is on the basis of an "openness" that Edwards advises we need to accept that society cannot be studied as a "metatheory of the successive development of modes of production…but an open totality" (291) which resists any "closure." "Fixed" or "closed" here means the primacy of the economic and the very possibility of theorizing the social totality of capitalism as an expression of its underlying logic in favor of an "aleatory totality" that never draws conclusions or, in fact, challenges capitalism's basis in exploitation. Society, he declares, operates as a network of "relatively autonomous" "levels," "moments" and "practices" which are and occupy "distinct spaces as well as times" (286). In other words, culture is distinct from production, which is distinct from politics, which has little connection to the day-to-day lives of individuals. Just as the internet appears to writers such as Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) and Yochai Benkler (The Wealth of Networks) to operate spontaneously and "organically," connecting multiple sites in multiple ways in contrast to any seemingly overarching logic, in Edwards' argument there is no way of drawing conclusions about the connections which connect political, environmental or economic contradictions to the exploitative logic of capitalism. As such, there is never a question about the material implications of exploitation as it becomes just one of a multitude of social forces without any overarching logic of determinacy.
The image of capitalism which emerges in Edwards's analysis is a familiar one which reflects the past half-century of bourgeois economics. Just as theorists on the left and the right—from Daniel Bell (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society) and Alain Touraine (The Post-Industrial Society) in the 1970s, to Alvin Toffler (The Third Wave) and Jean Baudrillard (Simulacra and Simulation) in the 1980s, to Kenichi Ohmae (The Borderless World) and Stanley Aronowitz (Post-Work) in the 1990s, to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Commonwealth) and Thomas L. Friedman (The World is Flat) today—have continually promoted the idea that capitalism is moving beyond labor as the source of surplus value under capitalism, Edwards argues that "the immediate space of production plays a lesser role in the reproduction of the relations of production than it might have done in the heyday of mass industrial production" (285) and that in place of class as an objective position in the social totality, "the notion of a 'class-in-itself' has to be jettisoned, for a social class is always a form of collective identity that can be realized only through shared practices and experiences" (295). Moreover, what Edwards is actually displacing is the fundamental division in the ownership of the means of production which defines class. He writes, the "capitalist class" has been "revived" as "a group of people who work in large financial and business corporations in metropolitan centers such as New York, London, Frankfurt, and Tokyo, have clear links to policy makers, are advocates of neoliberal ideology, and have materially benefited from neoliberal reforms" (295). In compiling this list, Edwards takes every effect of capitalism on the capitalist class—where they live, where they work, their political values, etc.—and mistakes this for the cause of their class power. However, their ability to live or work where they want, to send their children to certain schools, and whether or not they "believe" in neoliberal ideology has nothing to do with the source of their power—their ownership and control of the means of production which enables them to exploit the labor of workers. It is this fact which shapes all of the others. It is this ownership that allows them to extract and command the surplus labor of workers which produces the profits that empowers the ruling class to finance legislation that deregulates the economy and furthers the secondary effects of capitalism, such as environmental destruction and growing inequality, on which the "New Materialists" focus their attention.
Having eliminated the centrality of the ownership of the means of production to understanding capitalist reality, Edwards concludes that any theory of social transformation which presupposes the existence of alternative modes of production which bring an end to the exploitation of labor are nothing but a "utopian view of nonalienating forms of production and cultural life against which current forms are measured" (291) and that the idea that "escape from the exploitation and oppression of work under capitalism could be achieved only through revolution" (288) is outdated. Instead, we have to find ways of "resisting" from within the "repetitious" everyday of capitalism. Edwards writes,
even within contemporary urban practices that appear highly repetitive in character—whether that be travelling into work by the same route every day, going to the same kind of bars, restaurants, or clubs with friends, surfing the internet to expand one's network of contacts, or playing video games that involve some kind of virtual interaction with the space of urban life—there is difference and the potential for such practices to become sites of political resistance and transformation. (292)
It becomes clear that what Edwards and other "New Materialists" are promoting as the limit of social transformation is finding "new" ways of doing the same cultural practices with a "twist" of resistance from within, without ever addressing their underlying economic logic. This, of course, is precisely what capitalism wants from all of its managers and why New Materialism is the latest version of managerial theory to emerge from the North Left. Finding new ways of "thinking" about how to accomplish day-to-day tasks under capitalism in "new" ways has a dual ideological effect. On the one hand, "resistance from within" continues to promote the fundamental ideology that the exchange of wages for labor is a "fair" exchange. It is not the working day which is a problem, rather it is what you are doing as a consumer that matters—you have to find a way to get a better "exchange rate" from your life! On the other hand, it corresponds to the need of capital to better "manage" workers, to find more efficient ways of organizing production, to promote new commodities, and to make the worker feel like a "stakeholder" in the company. This is the ultimate conclusion of all capitalist "subcultures," which are essentially just an extension of marketing cloaked as new forms of "community" and resistant "lifestyles." It is branding taken to its logical conclusion whereby capital manufactures a consumer for the product so as to minimize overproduction. This has become so prevalent at this point that the companies create community "buzz" using stealth campaigns and viral marketing which appear to be "spontaneous" and "organic" ruptures from within the everyday. Even in cases when such movements emerge without direct corporate backing, and in this way market themselves as a form of resistance to multinational corporations such as those around "crowd sourcing" and "store-front" sites like Kickstarter and Etsy, they remain fully cloaked within the discourses of the capitalist market. Consider, for example, the description of the "Maker Movement" as
the evolution of millions of people who are taking big risks to start their own small businesses dedicated to creating and selling self-made products. In a world of mass-produced products, modern technology has made it easier than ever for a single individual to create and distribute items that are customizable and unique without having middlemen like manufacturers. (Morin)
What "resistance from within" amounts to is the ideology that by resisting the "instrumentality" of capitalist culture in the use of commodities in "unintended" ways you are somehow rejecting capitalism itself, when in reality you are simply acting as an agent of the market, finding new avenues for commodity production and thus the expansion of the control of capital.
Just as new products have to differentiate themselves in the market in order to promote the illusion of "consumer choice," the bourgeois managers have to differentiate their ideas from one another in order to sell their textwares in the marketplace of ideas. What is said to differentiate New Materialism from the other theories of the social is its close engagement to the everyday phenomena which make up human experience. As Coole and Frost write, in a globalized, networked world, "phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces" (9) and thus "material phenomena" have to be "conceptualized not as discrete entities or closed systems, but rather as open, complex systems with porous boundaries" (15). To achieve this, the New Materialists turn from textualism and cultural materialism to phenomenology which, they claim "introduce[s] elements of creative contingency, meaning, difference, efficacy, and a limited freedom for improvisation or resistance into nature before cognition begins" (20). What phenomenology enables is an ideological redefining of the contradictions of capitalism as no longer between capital and labor, but rather as an expression of the Kantian conflict between "nature" and "cognition" and thus transcendent of any specific social, political and, above all, economic relations.
The turn to phenomenology is not accidental. The phenomenological line in contemporary bourgeois theory which can be traced through Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger emerges at the beginning of the 20th century alongside of the rise of the imperialist era of capitalism and represents what Lukács describes as "reactionary answers to the problems to do with the class struggle" (Destruction 9). This period, as Chris Harman points out, marked the beginning of the "multinational" phase of capitalist organization and, as a result of two world wars and the subsequent conflicts between the capitalist and socialist blocs, reflected a level of economic interconnectivity between national capitalists not reached again until the onset of globalization ("Globalization: A Critique of a New Orthodoxy"). Then, as now, what was necessary was a "third-way" philosophy which could "conjure up all the necessary elements of Weltanschauung [world-view] without renouncing, de facto, and publicly, the agnosticism of subjective idealist philosophy and without revoking that denial of a reality independent of consciousness which had become crucial to anti-Materialism" (Lukács, Destruction 412). That is to say, bourgeois ideology could not ignore the emergence of a world market and the need to understand an increasingly complex system of production, and yet, at the same time, could not face the reality of the material world which was riven with heightening contradictions between capital and labor that would eventually result in two capitalist world wars and anti-colonial and workers' revolutions across Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. Thus, what emerged was a "third-way" theory to operate in an in-between space between idealism and materialism and, moreover, between capital and labor, as a way of responding to the contradictions of the existing while bracketing off any investigation of its historical and material basis. It was in this context that phenomenologists sought to create a "new style of attitude" (Husserl, Ideas I xix) which claimed to provide a way out of social and philosophical conflicts by challenging the "natural attitude"—or what Husserl described as the dominant philosophical "intentionality" which, in the case of the instrumentality of industrial science, presumed the existence and meaning of things and people as they (appear to) exist within "horizons" of perception, rather than questioning that existence itself. Challenging the ideas of both subjective idealism and historical materialism, phenomenologists argue, would unite "extreme subjectivism and extreme objectivism in its notion of the world or of rationality" (Merleau-Ponty xvii) and create a third space between the warring classes and their philosophical representatives.
In Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl maps out what he calls "a new science" which would bring about the end of the "natural attitude" he associated with the classical science of empiricism and saw as the failed logic of an increasingly instrumental and industrial age (Ideas I xvii). According to Husserl, the problem with instrumental science is that it begins with the presupposition that the elements of reality, as we perceive them, exist as "matters of fact." In particular, he argues that science takes for granted that the very existence of consciousness to deduce matters of fact depends upon the existence of a world independent of that consciousness, but which science does not simply "reflect" disinterestedly. In turn, the perception of the object which emerges is not actually an object "in itself" as it is "given" to the subject through experience, but an object for which an intentioned outcome is already presumed. He writes,
all talk about objects, their predicates, properties, relations, or states of affairs pertaining to them, such as their laws, refers back to theoretical acts in which objects are (or can be) given, perceived, or in some way envisaged, theoretically explained, thought, etc. (Ideas II 17)
That is to say, when we "talk about objects" we are doing so, Husserl proposes, from within a anticipatory framework in which the perceiving subject takes as given the objects it "sees" as well as displaces the fact that this "seeing" is shaped in advance by the expectation of the existence of the world from within the terms of the conceptual framework. According to Husserl, what are represented within specific frameworks of "intentionality" as "matters of fact," and therefore "absolute" grounds from which to determine the meaning of experience, are not actually factual, but displacements of fundamental essences from the perspective of "one-sided adumbrations" (Ideas I 9). The issue is that the dominant mode of "intentionality" or the "givenness" of things which one arrives at through human perception reflects the very limits of perception in that "the perception of a physical thing involves a certain inadequacy. Of necessity, a physical thing can be given only 'one-sidedly'" (Ideas I 94). The thing, in reality, is what Kant referred to as "noumena" or the "thing-in-itself": "transcendent to the perception of it and consequently to any consciousness whatever related to it" (Ideas I 89). Thus, while science and materialism represent themselves as having grasped the "ground" of reality within experience, they remain instead trapped within an intentionally which fails to move beyond appearances to grasp the "essences" of reality, while assuming that their one-sided perception is equivalent to the multiplicity of reality itself. In other words, they do not take into account the role of consciousness and its relation to the "life-world" (Libenswelt) from which it emerges as an object of study in itself, but rather presuppose this relationship without inquiring into the conditions in which one interacts with the other.
It is by recognizing that existence in the world is divided the immanent and the transcendental, Husserl argues, that phenomenology can become a new science of "essences" which does not impose upon objects an existence contrary to their ideal nature (Ideas I xx). This, he proposes, is accomplished through a hermeneutic skepticism, similar in practice to the mediations of Descartes, which seeks out the essence of that which exists as discovered by "intuition," a process of "thinking" he describes as reduction or a process of going back "to the consciousness in which things are given to us originarily, and so perfectly that we can be lacking nothing for grasping the universal essential form which prescribes the a priori rule for such objects" (Ideas II 37). Such an approach requires that the philosopher must put "in brackets, as it were, all our feelings-intentions" (Ideas II 27) in order to grasp that "To be in infinitum imperfect…is part of the unanullable essence of the correlation between 'physical thing' and perception of a physical thing" (Ideas I 94). Husserl calls the process by which the subject uncovers the transcendental essences of things "phenomenological reduction," which is based on the recognition that
it is essentially impossible for even the spatial shape of the physical thing to be given otherwise than in mere one-sided adumbrations and that—regardless of the inadequacies which remain continuously, despite all gain, throughout any cause of continuous intuitions—each physical property draws us into infinities of experience: that every experiential multiplicity, no matter how extensive, still leaves open more precise and novel determinations of the physical thing…in infinitum. (Ideas I 9)
What Husserl calls "eidetic" truths which uncover the "pure essence" of reality expose the ways in which the dominant "perceptions" of reality—whether scientific or economic, cultural or political—are instead built upon a false sense of an "absolute" totality that fails to grasp that a "physical thing is transcendent to the perception of it and consequently to any consciousness whatever related to it" because they remain at the level of the particular which is mistaken for the universal (Ideas I 89). Instead, Husserl claims the ability to gain access to the "pure essences" which transcend that which appears to the individual at any specific moment by recognizing, first, the multiplicity which always exceeds the perceptional horizon of any singular consciousness and, second, through a process of philosophic reduction which removes the intentionality which is presupposed in advance of one's interaction with the object, find that which is essential to the multiplicity and unites it independently of perception. He writes, "in this 'pure' or 'purified' theoretical attitude, we no longer experience houses, tables, streets, or works of art; instead we experience merely material things" (Ideas II 27). In other words, one must distinguish between the thing as it appears in intentionality of human perception, which thus by presuming an existence in advance actually turns the object into something other than itself, and the thing as an independent and transcendental object that exceeds the horizon of perception.
As an example of phenomenological reduction, Husserl describes the difference between transcendental and immanent knowledge which emerges during the experience of perception of a table. On the one hand, the transcendental essence of the table "can exist without being perceived, without even being potentially intended to" (Ideas I 87) and, on the other hand, "the table-perception is a continually changing one" and that upon returning to perceiving the table after closing his eyes, the perception is not "under any circumstances, individually the same" (Ideas I 86). The problem, according to Husserl, is when one perceives the object from a singular perspective which does not seek the "idea" of the table as it is emerges through intuition, but instead presumes this singular perspective represents the absolute essence of the table. That is to say, any focus on the table as it appears in the subject's perspective risks mistaking the immanent experience of the table for its transcendental qualities if one does not "bracket" out any instrumental or scientific intentionality that presupposes the meaning of the table. Instead, through the philosophic reduction, we seek out the essence of the table beyond that which exists in any particular moment, such that, for Husserl, it is sometimes possible to learn more about the transcendental essence of an object which exists as "in data of mere phantasy" (Ideas I 11)—that is, one which exists purely in the mind—as one that exists in material reality.
In this depiction of philosophic reduction, what emerges from Husserl's phenomenology is an entirely static and ahistoric theory of reality, in which the causes of the contradictions of the social world are sought not in the material conditions of production under capitalism but instead become a consequence of antimony between "appearance" and "essence." Of course, while Marx too argued that "all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided" (Capital Vol. III 804), the limit of Husserl's de-coupling of appearance and essence is that it represents the essence of reality as that which exceeds human labor and thus operates outside of human agency. In this sense, phenomenology represents an idealist response to the reification of life under capitalism by turning the "essence" of reality into that which is given and instead seeks to "purify" human consciousness of instrumental intentions. The problem, in short, is at the level of ideas, rather than in the social. Ideas are severed from the social and take on an independent existence which remains divided from the materiality of reality. In turn, the materiality of reality becomes transcendental and thus beyond the realm of revolutionary transformation. The solution to social and philosophical conflict, in other words, is escape into a transcendental realm of pure ideas, beyond the messy reality of class society.
To return to Husserl's example of the table from the position of historical materialism, of course my perception changes as I move and, in the same way, I am able to understand that my perspective of the table at a particular moment might be limited. Yet, to assume that my ability to perceive the table as a "unity" means that there is a transcendental essence to the table is to erase that the table is a historical object which exists because of human labor. To "intuit" the table as Husserl proposes means stripping it of its historical existence and instead approaching it as a static object. But a table is not a "table" outside of the material conditions of society. My perception of the table is not independent from these conditions. If I see the table as an alien object which exists independently of human agency, it is because society has turned it into such by turning it into a commodity.
This ahistorical logic of objects as presented in phenomenology is drawn out even further in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's foundational Phenomenology of Perception. Like Husserl, Merleau-Ponty initially declares that "Phenomenology is the study of essences, and according to it, all problems about to finding definitions of essences" (vii). However, going further than Husserl, he displaces the notion of reaching even "transcendental" essences and claims that
we must break with our familiar acceptance [of the world] and also, from the fact that from this break we can learn nothing but the unmotivated upsurge of the world…the most important lesson which the reduction teaches us is the impossibility of complete reduction. (xv)
That is, what the "eidetic" truth of reality exposes
is the impossibility of ever knowing the transcendental essence of
reality beyond the immediate, sensory phenomena which obliquely and
indirectly manifest the underlying essence of reality because it is only
through this collapsed and indistinguishable relation between subject
and object that "Being" as such exists. Thus, while objective thinking
reduces "all phenomena which bear witness to the union of subject and
world, putting in their place the clear idea of the object as in
itself, and of the subject as pure consciousness" (373), such a
distinction between subject and object is, he claims, ultimately
impossible. What Merleau-Ponty argues is that in contrast to classical
empiricism, historical materialism, as well as subjective idealism, all
of which he sees as isolating the subject from the object, "the thing is
inseparable from a person perceiving it" (373). He writes, "the system
of experience is not arranged before me as if I were God" (354), but
instead "things and instance can link up with each other to form a world
only through the medium of that ambiguous being known as subjectivity,
and can become present to each other only from a certain point of view"
(388). In other words, what Husserl posited as the possibility of
reaching "transcendence" through intuition becomes for Merleau-Ponty an
awareness that such transcendence is impossible because objects and
subjects exist simultaneously in a constantly changing and
interconnected relationship without any transcendental outside. Being,
in other words, exists only in the interconnected immediacy of
experiential immanence which is neither transcendental nor knowable
because there exists no "outside" perspective with which one can
understand the relations between the social and the natural world as a
It is on this basis that Merleau-Ponty proposes the theory of "fields" as a way of understanding the connections between humans, objects, and the "background" of nature while nonetheless maintaining their relative autonomy from one another. He states,
through my perceptual field, with its spatial horizons, I am present to my surroundings. I co-exist with all the other landscapes which stretch out beyond it, and all these perspectives together form a single temporal wave…At the same time, this ubiquity is not strictly real, but is clearly only intentional. (386)
A "field," in other words, is a self-reflexive framework in which the subject is able to perceive the interconnections between things, but does not assume that these interconnections have any explanatory value which might exceed the subject's perception of them, even as the subject of phenomenological thinking remains aware that the perception cannot capture the complex multiplicity of intentions which define reality. In this sense, anything the subject might assume about the world which is not immediately connected to their experience is an extension of the anticipation that one has in advance through the mode of intentionality with which one approaches the world. One is "aware" of the multiplicity of the world, that there are deep interconnections which shape it, but unlike Husserl, Merleau-Ponty claims no further perspective which might be able to "know" in an absolute sense the full and transcendental meaning of an object. As such, Merleau-Ponty essentially draws out from Husserl the full idealism which was latent in his concerns about "transcendental essences," even as he claims to return to the ontology of experience that he believes Husserl had abandoned. In concluding that the transcendental is an idea which exceeds the subject's ability to know, and that the "pure" experience which Husserl sought is one in which the subject/object binary is replaced with an indeterminate structure of experiential interconnections the logic of which does not exceed the immediacy and immanence of those connections, reality becomes even more elusive to critique. From Merleau-Ponty's perspective, I cannot know the "transcendental essence" of Husserl's table, but only know that the table and I exist in a limited relation of perspective to one another during the immanent moment of encountering one another. Having dismantled all binaries such as the natural and the social, the inside and the outside, the subject and the object through which it becomes possible to grasp the dialectical role of human labor in emerging from reality and, in turn, shaping reality as it exists, what we are left with is nothing more than a pragmatic response to experience that must approach each moment as an immanent "in itself," with no prior history and no possibility of leading to any future agency. In the guise of embracing ethical multiplicity, reality becomes contingent and without any determinacy.
The influence of Merleau-Ponty's dismantling of the subject/object relation can be seen in Sara Ahmed's contribution to New Materialisms, "Orientations Matter." Although suggesting that "perspectives" or "orientations" are not "only personal," Ahmed nonetheless declares that "to be oriented in a certain way is how certain things come to be significant, come to be objects for me" (235). In contrast to Marx's proposal that our "orientation to the object is the manifestation of the human world" (Economic 87), Ahmed argues that our relationship to the world is determined through our individual "orientation" to the objects around us. As an example, she discusses her orientation toward the act of writing:
Let's say I am oriented toward writing. This means that writing would be something that mattered, as well as something I do. To sustain such an orientation would mean certain objects must be available to me (tables, computers, pens, paper). Orientations shape how the world coheres around me. Orientations affect what is near or proximate to the body, those objects around me. (235)
An awareness of orientations, she claims, brings to the foreground "forms of labor that disappear in the familiarity of the 'givenness' of objects" (235), but what this means in practice is almost entirely mystical. Instead of opening a space of awareness of the material conditions under which such objects as tables, computers, pens, and paper are produced, this example of what Merleau-Ponty refers to as the reduction of thought to "infinite meditation" (xxiii) results in a de-understanding of the social. Ahmed goes on to suggest that
At least two entities have to arrive for there to be an encounter, a "bringing-forth" in the sense of an occupation…to "co-incide" suggests how different things happen in the same moment, a happening which brings things near to other things whereby the nearness shapes the shape of each thing. If being near to this object is not a matter of chance, what happens in the now of this nearness remains open, in the sense that we do not always know how this will affect each other, or how we will be affected by things. (240)
Once again, what we perceive at any moment is not uncovering what connects the complex manifestations of reality that would enable us to transform them, but rather simply "revealing" and "reveling" in the limits of immanent perception which take place during experience, as if experiences simply and spontaneously "happen" independent of any social structure.
The problem with this "multitudinous" approach, as Lenin writes, is that "in view of the extreme complexity of the phenomena of social life, it is always possible to select any number of examples of separate dates to prove any proposition" (Imperialism 190), and it is this ambiguity which makes phenomenology so useful to capitalism. The image of a writer and a table coming together to "co-incide" turns the material conditions under which the table is produced, in which the majority make their living working for the minority, to a "transcendental" crisis that no change in the social relations of production can address. That there is no "determination" in the relation of "writer" to "writing" becomes a way of isolating the different aspects of capitalism and making each one an individual "experience," rather than an expression of the social totality. There is no way of talking about the material conditions of writing except as a local, contingent, and ultimately ahistorical practice which is "remade anew" each time it occurs. In this sense, as Lukŕcs writes,
the "matter itself" to which…the phenomenologists gave central importance is simply not the matter itself in its totality and objectivity. It is not total, for actual social connections and conditions disappear behind the "uniqueness" of isolated objects, and where these are linked together, this happens with the aid of mythicized abstractions and analogies. (Destruction 425)
In the image of a de-materialized writing practice, all of the historical realities of production which shaped writing as a social practice are erased and instead are filled with myths, legends, and empty narratives about the uniqueness of the singular experience of writing.
That this de-historicizing and de-socializing of matter is class ideology can be seen in Merleau-Ponty's discussion of class. In applying the phenomenological method to class he writes,
Is class based upon income statistics or on its place in the process of production? It is well known that none of these criteria enables us to decide whether an individual belongs to a nation or a class. In all revolutions there are members of the privileged class who make common cause with the revolutionaries, and members of the oppressed class who remain faithful to the privileged. And every nation has its traitors. This is because the nation and class are neither versions of fate which hold the individual in subjection from the outside nor values which he posits from within. They are modes of co-existence which are a call upon him…Whether we are concerned with my body, the natural world, the past, birth or death, the question is always how I can be open to phenomena which transcend me, and which nevertheless exist only to the extent that I take them up and live them. (423)
It is not accidental that one of the conclusions all
"left" bourgeois theories reach is that class is somehow a "voluntary"
relationship with no necessary connection to the relations of
production. In this way, they salvage private property relations while
retaining the appearance of radicality by recognizing the "difficulties"
of revolutionary change. The fact which Merleau-Ponty celebrates here,
in which class consciousness does not mechanically "co-incide" with
one's position in the division of labor, is not
some radical discovery. As Marx and Engels write, the "organization of
the proletarians into a class, and consequently into political party, is
continually being upset again by the competition between workers" which
is forced upon them under the conditions of capital (Manifesto
493). In other words, it is the material conditions which create the
"co-incidence" that brings people together as members of a class, but
these conditions exist outside of any immanent moment of the capitalist
system and, through historical materialist critique, can be known and
transformed precisely for this reason. As a result of the very kind of
"eventism," or inability to connect the various crisis of capitalism to
its economic organization that New Materialists celebrate, "private"
workers do not support "public" workers, "American" workers do not
support "Chinese" workers and so on, because the material reality of
having to compete to sell their labor on the market leads to the
illusion that other workers, rather than the owners of capital, are
their enemies and the source of the contradictions in their lives. The
fact that class consciousness is not mechanically reducible to the
materiality of class is an expression of the fact that "life is not
determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" (German
Ideology 155). In order
for a class to become conscious of its interest, the material conditions
for its existence must be first in place. In other words, the move from
a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself is precisely the role of
revolutionary theory in the struggle for social change, but such a
transformation cannot take place if the material conditions for the
existence of classes are not present. The inversion of this relationship
by phenomenologists—in which it is not the reality of private ownership
which creates class divisions, but rather ideas about class which do
so—effectively cuts off any discussion of the causes of social
inequality, and instead makes them an individual and local problem. New
Materialists, like their phenomenological guides before them,
essentially say about the working class, "this contradiction is their
own contradiction and this predicament their own predicament, whereupon
they should either set their minds at ease, keep their disgust to
themselves, or revolt against it in some fantastic way" (Marx,
German Ideology 169). In the
guise of addressing the "local" and "contingent" manifestations of
capitalism's brutal system of exploitation, the phenomenologists and
their current New Materialist standard-bearers retreat entirely into a
mystical realm of conflicts between "essences" and "appearances,"
"ideas" and "things," and "man" and "nature," while simultaneously
representing these realms of being as eternally and fundamentally
divided. "Nature" becomes the transcendental heaven which "man" will
never reach. Instead of a material solution to real contradictions, it
becomes a spiritual guidance for the phantasy economics of imagination.
In contrast to the phenomenological approach, Marx demonstrates why a theory of society cannot begin at the level of surface appearances, but must turn to the study of the underlying relations to make sense of social formations and when they fall into crisis. This, for Marx, is how one begins to grasp the materiality of reality not simply as a collection of diverse relations, but as a totality, and thus understand how each manifestation of the contradictions of capitalism has its root in the exploitation of labor. For instance, in explaining the theory of social totality in Wage-Labour and Capital, Marx writes,
In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another. (28)
In turn, he goes on to explain that "the social relations within which individuals produce, the social relations of production, are altered, transformed, with the change and development of the material means of production, of the forces of production" (28). It is in this sense, in the connection between the forces of production and the social relations which correspond to them, that Marx defines totality. That is, while there is not the "mechanical" reflection between the material world and "reality" as proposed by the empiricists, this does not lead us to the irreconcilable antimonies of Kantianism that now fascinate left theory either. "Reality," in other words, is a nonmimetic reflection of the material relations of society shaped by the development and organization of human labor. It is this theory of nonmimetic reflection which Marx advances when explaining the relations between the "phenomenal" characteristics of society and its "actual" material relations:
The relations of production in their totality constitute what is called the social relations, society, and, moreover, a society at a definite stage of historical development, a society with peculiar, distinctive characteristics. Ancient society, feudal society, bourgeois (or capitalist) society, are such totalities of relations of production, each of which denotes a particular stage of development in the history of mankind. (29)
It is the mode of production—how any society is organized to produce the material conditions of its existence—that determines the structure of everyday life because, in the most basic terms,
The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. (Marx, German Ideology 31)
Thus, whether the economic foundation of society is nomadic, feudalist,
capitalist or socialist, the conditions which shape the "everyday"
existence of society are to be found in the organization of social
production. In this sense, the "total act of production" which Marx
describes here is the basis upon which all of the manifestations of
capitalism emerge—from hunger and poverty for the many to the extreme
accumulation of private wealth for a few—and which end up naturalized
and accepted in the "materialisms" of contemporary bourgeois theory as
the imperceptible background against which events spontaneously "erupt"
without any overarching structure. In other words, while the New
Materialists focus their attention on the material inequalities
capitalism produces, they obscure the conditions which create these
inequalities. Inequality, however, is an
effect of exploitation at the point of production. The ownership and
control of the means of production by capital means that no amount of
redistribution to address social inequalities will ever remove the cause
of that inequality. Far from explaining the myriad crisis that
capitalism now finds itself in, theories such as what is being called
the "New Materialism" contribute to its reproduction by obscuring that
underneath the diverse crises of capitalism it remains a system built
upon the exploitation of labor by capital.
In dividing reality into the phenomenal experience of consciousness against an unknowable "materiality," New Materialism ultimately occupies the same ideological role as phenomenology did in the early imperialist period in which a descriptive theory "confronts consciousness with the chaos of things (and men)" (Lukács, "Existentialism" 139). This "chaotic" consciousness fractures the social totality at the level of thought and, in turn, creates a conceptual language in which to isolate and separate all the aspects of capitalism into distinct spheres to be addressed in their "own" terms. That is, New Materialism, like phenomenology before it, is so effective an ideology for global capital because it turns the historical study of the existing conditions of life into a series of autonomous spheres without any overarching logic. This has become especially important with the rise of "finance capital," which has come to be represented in bourgeois theory as an entirely distinct and "new" form of capitalism and the driving force between both the possibilities and limitations of an "austerity" economy.
The "Age of Austerity," in which bourgeois politicians are responding to a declining rate of profit by attempting to destroy the last remaining vestiges of the "welfare state" across Europe and the United States, is not a cause of crisis in itself, but a reflection of the heightening of the fundamental contradictions between capital and labor over the control of the productive forces of society. The expansion of labor productivity and the interconnectedness of production which has marked the past thirty years of global capitalism and which could be put to meeting the needs of all is, instead, threatening the conditions of life for the world's majority. While the capitalist class is now attempting to secure profit rates by claiming massive amounts of the social surplus produced by workers through bank and State "bailouts," the majority of working people are told they have to learn to "cope" with the consequences of decimated wages, eliminated pensions, and declining housing, education, and health care (Harman, Zombie Capitalism 231-238). As the deepening of this conflict between the forces and relations of production comes to the surface of social life, theories of society become one space in which the class conflict is also fought out by either explaining that the cause of the current social crises rest in capitalist production and can only be eliminated by replacing capitalist with socialism, or rush to the defense of the existing system and "sell to the master his means of lordship, spirit objectified (versachlicht) into method" (Adorno 15).
The contradictions of "austerity" capitalism—in which the development of an "extraordinarily dense and widespread network of relationships and connections" is "concentrated in a few hands" (Lenin, Imperialism 285)—are not a matter of "bad" politicians or "corrupt" culture, but the consequence of a system of exploitation. Yet, if one examines the arguments of bourgeois theory, all one will find are arguments that place the blame on "poor" ideas, even as they decry issues of poverty, inequality or ecological destruction. This displacement of the actual conditions of existence in favor of a one-sided, idealist depiction of "reality" is what is now being reflected in the work of bourgeois ideologues in calls for returning to a "phenomenal" theory of society.
Whether it is the theory of "commonwealth" advanced by Hardt and Negri (Commonwealth), Žižek and Badiou's neo-Platonic communism (The Idea of Communism), Sloterdijk's "spatial" theory of history (Bubbles), Luhmann's "systems theory" (Social Systems), Agamben's "state of exception" (Homo Sacer), or the turn to the "biopolitics" of ecology and animal studies (Wolfe, Before the Law), the return to questions of "material reality" continues the phenomenological erasure of the actual reality in favor of an idealist reading of materiality without labor. This turn reflects the fact that bourgeois theory of the post-World War II period which focused on the deconstruction of materiality in favor of "materiality without matter" no longer meets the needs and complexities of capitalism's global reality. Just as phenomenology became popular among the left in the beginning of the 20th Century because of the ways in which it gave the illusion of materialism to an idealist world-view, what is required today is a more "encompassing" perspective of material reality which can "manage" the complex inter-connections of global production, financial markets, derivative exchanges, and intercontinental political and military conflict. In other words, as capital expands globally, so must its philosophical representatives take on a "global" framework while nonetheless continuing to denying basic causality of the economic realities of capital's private ownership of the means of production.
Žižek, for instance, writes that "postmodernism" and its theorization of "materialism without matter" is "at its most basic, a reactive formation" (Less than Nothing 255). He argues that postmodern theory's focus on signification displaces the analysis of contemporary social contradictions. Žižek claims that in the philosophies of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault,
radical leftist politics is rejected as "metaphysical," as imposing on social life a universal metaphysical vision, as striving for a totally self-transparent and regulated society, and, since life resists the constraints of any such ideological strait-jacket, this politics necessarily ends in totalitarian terror. Such a political stance is very comfortable: while legitimizing a pragmatic politics without risks, it is able to present its cynical liberalism as the most radical-critical position. (Less than Nothing 966)
In this sense, he says, "the apparent 'radicality' of some postmodern trends should not deceive us here: this―often spectacular―'radicality' is there to fascinate us with its deceptive lure, and thus to blind us to the fundamental absence of thought proper" (Less than Nothing 255). Instead, addressing what Žižek has claimed are the "four riders" of a coming capitalist apocalypse—"ecological crisis, the consequences of biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself…and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions" (Living in the End Times x)—he calls for a new kind of "radical" politics which reflects both the global realities of the contemporary and yet refuses any kind of totalizing answer or political program. He writes, for instance, on "returning" to Lenin, "'Lenin' is not the nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite the contrary, the Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism" (Revolution 11).
For Žižek, "communism" names the "problems of the commons," which is his way of ethically acknowledging human suffering while in the process reducing materiality to a bodily affect (trauma). The "problems of the commons" are those that "affect" us all and that therefore require communal solutions—which is his way of obscuring the class relations. As in Derridean "materiality" what is material here is that which eludes representation and at the same time constitutes it as an ethical imperative. Crisis is taken as the precondition for the political event invested with the power to remake the social that itself cannot be explained as caused by the laws of motion of capitalism. The idea that we have to address the consequences of capitalist production while nonetheless embracing the notion that any sustained critique of the economic relations of capitalist production cannot account for the "catastrophic new constellation" is an instance, as Lenin argues, of how bourgeois scholars routinely respond to the contradictions of capitalism by pushing "specific and secondary details into the forefront" while "do[ing] their very best to distract attention from essentials by means of absolutely ridiculous schemes for 'reform'" (Lenin, Imperialism 286). The piece-meal, phenomenological "materialism" offered by bourgeois theorists attempts to block any understanding of the fundamental logic of capitalism in favor of the study of an unending stream of local "events" such as environmental or financial crises which, writers such as Žižek claim, exceed any connection to the exploitation of labor by capital. As such what they "reinvent" is not Marxism or even materialism, but the "thousands of shades of varieties of philosophical idealism" (Lenin, Materialism 268).An intensive focus on the collecting of secondary effects of capitalism rather than understanding the social whole is the core logic of the New Materialist movement. Returning to the Introduction to New Materialisms by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, they argue that as "human beings we inhabit an inevitably material world. We live our everyday lives surrounded by, immersed in matter. We ourselves are composed of matter" (1). The problem, they write, is that "the more textual approaches associated with the so-called cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society" (3). Instead, in the contemporary moment our lives are "embedded in dense networks of power" (2) in which "our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions, and on pitiless cosmic motions, on material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as socio-economic structures that produce and reproduce our everyday lives" (1). Assuming that the failure of Marxism is that that "the capitalist system" cannot be "understood in any narrowly economistic way" but rather only "as a detotalized totality that includes a multitude of interconnected phenomena and processes that sustain its unpredictable proliferation and unexpected crises, as well as its productivity and reproduction" (29), their "radical" appraisal of materialism is a call to recognize the "forces, energies, and intensities (rather than substances) and complex, even random, processes (rather than simple, predictable states) [which] have become the new currency" (13).
In proposing a phenomenological materialism which embraces "unpredictable proliferation and unexpected crises," the proponents of New Materialism are advancing an updated version of the Kantian form of materialism which appeals to the images of reality while undermining the very concepts through which reality can be understood. While Kant's transcendental idealism represented an important theoretical advance beyond what Hegel calls the empirical limits of "sense-consciousness" (15), to return to Kantian materialism today is to render "reality" a disconnected series of material events without causality. In this neo-Kantian version of materiality, the financial crisis in Greece, Spain, and Italy is unconnected to the ecological crisis, is unconnected to the housing crisis, is unconnected to… In other words, each manifestation of social crisis becomes an event in itself, and in turn requires a new logic and new understanding to address it. In this sense, the diversity of crises now confronting capitalism becomes not the evidence that something is fundamentally wrong with the system of exploitation, but rather precisely the "proof" that the social totality does not exist and, as such, cannot be transformed through any revolutionary project. The rise of New Materialism speaks to both the globalization of capitalism, which requires an "awareness" of connections and an ability to manage diverse events, experiences, and cultures without ever drawing any broader conclusions about the system itself, and the inability to address the causes of the very crises they acknowledge threaten the world which itself results from the expanding global division of labor under capitalism. In fact, as one of the contributors to the collection, Rey Chow, muses, "What if we were to adopt Marxism's focus on materialism/materiality (as a way to critique consciousness), yet without defining it (as Marxism tends to do) as an agency of change-as-improvement?" (224) Gone, according to the proponents of "New Materialism," is any possibility of "change-as-improvement" on a grand scale that even bourgeois society "promised" during its ascendency in the works of Locke, Kant, and Hegel and in its place is the "making do" and "coping" of the thinkers of the economic system in fundamental decline that is "austerity" capitalism.
The dividing of reality into autonomous spheres each with its own event-ful logic is the philosophic version of the post-labor argument in which finance and cognitive affects are said to have replaced exploited labor as the source of surplus value. That is, the oft-repeated logic that finance capital has become a distinct and autonomous sphere of the economy is fundamental to the claims by the "New Materialists" in their defense of the idea that "things" have their own power to generate "value" independently of human interaction. The editors of New Materialism write,
Conceiving matter as possessing its own modes of self, transformation, self-organization, and directedness and thus no longer as simply passive or inert disturbs the conventional sense that agents are exclusively humans who possess the cognitive abilities, intentionality, and freedom to make autonomous decisions and the corollary presumption that humans have the right or ability to master nature. (Coole and Frost 10)
Within this framework, each object has the capacity to create "meaning" (another word for value) independently of human "intentionality" (which here acts as a code word for labor). It is such that "matter," defined as the local experience of existing in the world at a specific time and place, becomes the effect of ideas. How one "exists" thus has very little to do with the conditions of existence.
The isolation of "existence" from the conditions
which produce it takes as its starting point the presupposition that in
the age of finance and austerity, capitalism's basic laws have been
suspended and, instead, that society operates on an "eventful" logic
without any totality. According to this model, what Marx calls
"fictitious capital" (Capital Vol. III, 397-438), namely the surplus
value extracted from labor that takes on the appearance in the market as
credit, stock shares, debt, speculation…, which in today's economy will
find its most acute expression in what are called "derivatives"
(388-397), is in contemporary theory mixed with "real capital"
(461-516), creating the spectral image of a new "hybrid" form of
capitalism. For example, among post-Operaismo thinkers such as
Antonio Negri and Paulo Virno, finance capital is said to be "radically
new [in character]" such that the very distinction between 'real
economy' and 'financial economy'…is today unfounded from an analytic
profile" (Mezzadra at al., Crisis in the Global Economy 10-11).
What supposedly distinguishes finance capital from
"real" capital is that it breaks with all past economic logics which
could be tied to the material world of labor and is driven instead by
what Derrida calls "spectropoetic" accumulation (Spectres of Marx
45) which "inscribes…a new set of givens that perturbs both the methods
of traditional calculation and the conceptual opposition between work
and non-work, activity, employment and their contrary" (81), or what
Hardt and Negri call the "immaterial labor" of the multitude which "is
not concerned with the production of objects for subjects, as commodity
production is often understood, but the production of subjectivity
itself" (Multitude x). Capitalism, it is argued, is more
concerned with controlling the time and creativity of workers, rather
than exploiting their labor.
This is an expression of the theory of finance capital which dominates contemporary theory, in which finance is understood not as "simply in the service of accessible wealth" but as "a means for the acquisition of self" (Martin, The Financialization of Daily Life 3). According to this model, influentially articulated in bourgeois theory by Deleuze and Guattari, capital has ceased to be a system of labor exploitation and instead has become a global system of financial flows with "no industrial essence functioning other than as merchant, financial, and commercial capital" (Anti-Oedipus 249). Or, as Gibson-Graham write, finance "has set money free of the 'real economy' and allowed capital to seep, if not spurt, from the productive system" (End of Capitalism 137). According to the bourgeois theories of finance capitalism, money now creates value independently of the labor of workers, who are needed only to consume and submit to the dictates of a post-capitalist ruling class. While technology has given money the power of self-reproduction, all of those who do not labor—former capitalist and worker alike—are now "free" to exist as they wish, once they break the cultural hold that a non-exploitative capitalist machine has over them. In this context, what "matters" is no longer the materiality of labor and its subjection to exploitation by capital, but the ideas which shape how we individually "live" in the world.
This fracturing of the material world into distinct and independent "realities" without any necessary connection is itself an effect of the full subsumption of society under the economic logic of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, as capitalism has become more "homogeneous," it continues to maintain the ideological illusions of diversity and difference in the marketplace. As Marx writes, it is in particular when capital takes the form of interest-bearing capital—that is, that the productivity of labor has reached such a high level that entire sectors of wealth exist in reserve for use as investment in future production—that it "assumes its pure fetish form" and comes to be seen as a thing with "an independent existence." He goes on to say, when capital becomes "fictitious" it is not that profit is actually created independently of labor, only that "the source of profit is no longer discernible" (Capital Vol. III 390). He writes,
As soon as it is loaned out, or invested in the reproduction process (inasmuch as it yields interest to the functioning capitalist as its owner, separate from profit of enterprise), interest on it grows, whether it is awake or asleep, is at home or abroad, by day or night. (Capital Vol. III 391)
That is to say, this "dead labor" cannot create any value except as "the result of their contact with living labor" (Marx, Capital Vol. III 397). However, as the global division of labor expands, and as capital is put to use in increasingly distant and complex enterprises, it becomes even more difficult to "see" the connection between the exploitation of labor and profit. If the capitalist decides to turn over part of his surplus value to "finance" or "banking" capital in an attempt to secure a portion of the surplus produced in another enterprise, it does not mean that his capital has magically reproduced itself, but rather only can increase in value insofar as it is invested in productive enterprises. This is why Marx writes that "fictitious capital" is "pregnant in itself with a portion of present or future living labor" (Capital Vol. III 397). If the investment does not lead to the growth of productive capital, it is lost to the capitalist that invested it. This explains the current "financial crisis" now currently acutely effecting Europe and the United States. Trillions of dollars of investment has been "lost" in the sense that it has not resulted in the expansion of productive labor and, as such, capital is now trying to recuperate whatever it can through the appropriation of public surpluses. Austerity is thus not a policy that is "causing" inequality, but rather a political maneuver which is itself a response to the fundamental economics of the capitalist system launched by the representatives of capital in an attempt to maintain profitability at a time of economic instability.
Consider, in this sense, how Rey Chow addresses the issue of money in her essay "The Elusive Material: What the Dog Doesn't Understand." Drawing upon Žižek's argument in The Sublime Object of Ideology that "a problem unsolved by Marx" is "the material character of money: not the empirical, material stuff money is made of, but of the sublime material, of that other 'indestructible and immutable' body which persists beyond the corruption of the body physical" (Sublime Object 12), she questions how the "immaterial corporeality" of money "come[s] into being in the first place" (227). Arguing that the "exchange of commodities" is similar in meaning as "the prayers and rituals in church, and the submissive acts (including speech acts) toward the Great Party Leader," she writes that the value of money is determined by "a certain iterative behavior" in which "mindless repetitions—repetitions that escape, that do not require 'consciousness,' as it were" are what "materialize" money and create its value (227). This is essentially the argument that one often hears about the creation of value on Wall Street, in which value is somehow created and lost through "bad" news, speculation, and even without any human interaction whatsoever. As a recent article investigating the use of software programs to automate the trading and selling of stocks put it, "machines run our stock markets—and our financial lives" (Klein). The idea that finance has become a self-creating, self-sustaining, and autonomous source of wealth is why Marx calls bourgeois theories of finance the "mystification of capital in its most flagrant form" (Marx, Capital Vol. III 390). Instead of finance as "only a portion of the profit, i.e. of the surplus value, which the functioning capitalist squeezes out of the labourer" instead it comes to "appear now, on the contrary, as though interest were the typical product of capital, the primary matter, and profit, in the shape of the profit of enterprise, were a mere accessory and by-product of the process of reproduction" (Marx, Capital Vol. III 390). It is a reflection of how massive the exploitation of labor by capital has become in the era of "finance capitalism" that capital appears to take on a life of its own. Just as a dollar cannot magically become two unless it contributes to the production, through labor, of new value, finance cannot act as an independent or autonomous sphere isolated from the "real" economy. In focusing on "mindless repetitions," Chow and others are simply decrying the alienating effects of capitalism, but not its underlying structure. It is not cultural repetition which is the commodity's source of value, but labor.
"New Materialism," like phenomenology before it, is a reflection of capitalism in its most advanced forms. In their representation of autonomous and co-existing "realities" in which humanity is presented as being "thrust willy-nilly into situations where many conflicting forces are at work" and which "do not have any central line of development nor indicate any particular outcome," the New Materialists recreate the logic of the market in which "everything in life is a gamble" (Novack 322). This, however, is only the "meaning of life" when the means of meeting your needs have been stripped from you and you are forced to work to reproduce the life and wealth of another, as it is for the majority under capitalism. The alienated worldview in which the products of labor come to confront workers "as an alien power" (Marx, Economic 77) is the consequence of a society divided by exploitation. By defining the contradictions of capitalism as an eternal conflict between "humans" and "things," New Materialism has become the left logic of "austerity" capitalism because it focuses attention on managing production to minimize extreme manifestations of inequality while it simultaneously "pushes the question" of exploitation "away into a grey nebulous distance" (Marx, Economic 71). While phenomenologists propose "being filled with wonder" in the objects labor produces (Merleau-Ponty xv), as Marx writes, "man is not lost in his object only when the object becomes for him a human object or objective man. This is possible only when the object becomes for him a social object, he himself for himself a social being, just as society becomes a being for him in this object" (89). It is only by understanding the contradictions of capitalism in relation to their underlying logic in exploitation that the majority be able to change the conditions of the world, that objects will no longer appear as having a mystical and independent existence against and above humanity, and society will be directed toward meeting the needs of all.
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