Monday, March 20, 2006


[Apologies for lack of pictures in this post - this computer is being an arse. Will hopefully upload some soon]

Build 'em up, then knock 'em down. Such a performative approach to politics - creating your own critics and then refuting their outlandish (not to mention false!) arguments - is hardly new. In the most brutally authoritarian of regimes, the creation and destruction of straw men is usually physically violent as well as verbal. Stalin's purges are a perfect instance, though in that case the creation of enemies was borne out of paranoia, whereas Bush's are borne out of smugness: it is beneath him to answer to his real critics, so he invents his own.

Slavoj Zizek notes that Hitler's sub-humanisation of the Jews during the 1930s was achieved through performatism. First the Nazis created subhuman conditions for the Jews to live in, and then they induced revulsion for the "dirt and decay in the Warsaw ghetto - that is to say, the very horror that the Nazis themselves had created."

We can see this subhumanisation in the treatment of Muslims (the word literally means submission to the will of God - and my, how the West have enjoyed exploiting that suggestion of non-rationality!) by America today. In Michael Winterbottom's film The Road to Guantanamo, we see the attempt to dredge every last vestige of humanity from the Muslim inmates by a combination of physical and psychological torture. The images in the film - the barrage of roaring thrash metal, the pursuit of prisoners by seemingly-rabid dogs, the incessantly repeated questions, the fabrication of evidence, the ritual beatings, the enforced isolation - are consistent with what has been reported by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International among others.

Actually, the film shows that the inmates remain human, and even retain a degree of humour, but this is only through their own refusal to become subhuman, and through the refusal of a few American guards (one is portrayed in the film) to treat them as such. Two scenes, where the US guard stamps on a tarantula in one of the Tipton Three's cell in the dead of night, and where the same guard asks to hear one of the captives rap, are moving because the guard's rejection of the myth of Arab-prisoner-as-animal kills that myth at its root. The British prisoners remain human in spite of their Arabness. The same cannot be said, probably, for the hundreds of non-Western Arabs who remain in captivity in Guantanamo, and who have no common language or pop culture to humanise themselves in the eyes of the West.

So captives in Guantanamo are arrested, never charged with an offence, and then accused of fucking up, of not being cooperative. Iraqis endure the decimation and occupation of their country, rebel against this, and are then accused of being terrorists. These various performative, myth-making techniques work in the same way that the psyche represses aspects of childhood. The myths become endemic.

How to do things with actions?

Performatism can, according to Hardt and Negri, be subverted by the multitude and used against imperialism (which they correctly see now as transcending nations and states and any any traditional notions of sovereignty).

Liberal democracy itself is performative - the democratic consensus is achieved by the imposition of a set of ideologies by representative bodies. It is not democratic in any real sense, and indeed today this obligatory consensus is so narrow as to permit a choice of three virtually identicals variants on a single theme of governance. This situation is quite clearly a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - a dissident in the UK has no more chance of realising his political will than one in Cuba.

Hardt and Negri think this system may be reversible. They locate "the rise of the multitude in the heart of capitalism," and see this is the source of a new form of revolutionary democracy. At the heart of this seems to be the distinction between material labour (where your labours produce a tangible, sellable goods) and non-material labour (where your labours produce ideas, or affect human life in a social way - teaching people, for instance, or - perish the thought - writing a blog). When Marx analysed capitalism, the proletariat were largely material labourers; today, more people who work have not produced a sellable object as such at the end of their working day - and this, according to Hardt and Negri, is inherently democratic. I must admit to not reading either Empire or Multitude in any detail, but if anything I see non-material labour as having less potential for revolt than material labour. It has a dual effect of dissolving workforces while hegemonising capitalism. Zizek (him again) claims that "immaterial production is the production of social life," but this must be a social life shot through with capitalism. Far from socialising capital, it capitalises social life. Whether your labour is intellectual or affective, it remains driven by the need for profit rather than any individuality on the worker's part. So, although non-material labour is indeed more social than material labour, the social life is not the realisation of emancipated subjects, but the playground of capitalist objects. Anybody who works in an office can see workers who unconsciously (or at best pre-consciously) swear blind allegiance to their company, or feel guilt when they get ill and call in sick. By having such a social component, the separation between work and leisure becomes ever more negligible - which is why the multitude swallows the capitalist myth hook, line and sinker.

In fact, non-material (you might even call it "virtual") capitalism, by allowing workers to believe that they are bringing their own unique vision to "the project," makes individuals feel superficially fulfilled, and thus reduces their potential for conflict. But that unique vision was created by the demands of profit in the first place.


Blogger minifig said...

Do you see this spread of Capitalism as being planned and aimed for? Is this a conspiracy by our leaders, or by the Bourgeoisie, or do you see it as an unconscious urge for more from a powerful group of people?

3:58 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

It is clearly planned for, though capitalism is now so hegemonic that its existence is barely registered. It is assumed to be the "natural state of things," so much so in fact that the only people who ever use the word "capitalism" are those who oppose it. Capitalists like to see themselves as operating from outside of an ideological construct. In this way, I suppose you could call it unconscious.

But capitalism is so pervasive (try thinking of an aspect of life which it does not affect), that it barely needs urging on by anybody. I am nowhere near as optimistic as Hardt and Negri or, indeed, as many revolutionary socialists that capitalism can be overcome in a Leninist way, though I do admire that particular stance.

But for all those who say Marx has been proved wrong, that the conflicts inherent in capitalism have not led to its downfall, that people today are better of as a result of capitalism, and that the concept of the proletariat is out of date etc etc, should look outside their own back yard. I will link properly to this article,,1747052,00.html a bit later.

6:11 PM  
Blogger minifig said...

Capitalism certainly has major problems, there's no denying it. I just believe that it's come so prevalent through widespread self-interest rather than any underlying plan...

7:23 AM  
Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

This analysis leaves out most of the rest of the world -- all these goods still have to come from somewhere. It's just that, with the international division of labor, all the "sexy" work gets left to the imperial center. And yet in spite of this, unemployment grows even in the center -- forget the half of humanity which the Rich have decided now are 'disposable'...

And the Bush regime is every bit as paranoid as the Stalin regime. The circumstances are simply different, and they get to look "smug" a little more convincingly. I believe Stalin was also very good at looking smug too.

9:23 PM  

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