Monday, February 12, 2007


This post is not about any particular part of Capital, or even about Capital itself. But it partly responds to a problem that will beset contemporary readers, even those with Marxist sensibilities. The problem is the stark disparity between 19th century capitalism, and its 21st century offspring ; and also the fact that, while Marx could describe a logic of capitalism, we would be hard-pressed today to assign any logic or science to it at all. Can we even talk of a thing called capital, when it is so dispersed, so invisible, so irreal?

My response shamelessly plunders from an essay by Gilles Deleuze, published in 1990, entitled "Society of Control." It describes the shift, as gradual and chimeral as you would expect, from a society of discipline to a society of control.

"Disciplinary" as a way of describing society is, of course, a Foucaultian term, from his Discipline and Punish. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the individual would pass through a limited number of close, controlled spaces : from family, to school, to the barracks, to the factory (and perhaps via the hospital and the prison). The project of these spaces was to concentrate production and create an order where production could be maximised.

After the Second World War, Deleuze notes that the institutions of the disciplinary society were becoming anachronistic. Partly, this was because of a variety of progressive movements which stated that, for example, the family was a space for the oppression of woman, or that mental institutions were spaces for the oppression of the mentally ill. But it was also because of a radical change taking place at the heart of capitalism. The change was in emphasis from concentrated production to dispersive marketing.

In the 19th century, capitalism was a concentration, "of property and of production." The capitalist can own the means of production (the factory, the labour of his workers). Markets are created by specialisation (I will concentrate on conquering the flip-flop market), or colonisation (commodities robbed by imperialists from the East Indies > goods are exported and the profits used to buy slaves for plantations in the Americas > plantations provide cheap sugar and cotton exploitation, the products of which are then traded by the Europeans to the East, etc), or by lowering the costs of production (the very subject of Capital).

But present-day capitalism does not get its own hands dirty with the business of production ; it can export this to the third world. Instead, it buys the finished product and markets it. It does not require a concentated centre for production ; in fact, the more dispersion and controlled disorganisation, the better. Hence the disappearance of the single owner, replaced by shareholders. Marketing is the new soul, says Deleuze, the new instrument of social control, and it brings with it two central problems.

The first is a chronic (literally chronic) instability at the heart of social life. The forces at the heart of the society of control operate far more fluidly than those of discipline : "the corporation has replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, a gas." So, rather than the fixed equilibrium created from maximum productivity and minimum wages, we now have a "perpetual metastability that operates through challenges, contests, and highly comic group sessions." Employees are now set against each other ; pay is performance-related ; Employee of the Month certificates are awarded. In the factory, you had a job for life and a union to protect to ; your life, in spite of its hardships, had a certain narrative to it. Now, job security has vanished, and with it the protection and (let´s use the word) solidarity of a Union. The narrative has been postponed ad infinitum.

The effect of this on humanity must be profound. The reformist movements which won us so many rights and improvements in living standards (I refer to a comment left on my previous post about Capital) did so in exchange for a loss of tenderness. We have turned, says Deleuze, from moles to serpents, just as money has turned from being measured against a fixed, tangible standard (like gold) to being floated. Before, we were individuals, and also parts of masses (classes, clubs, guilds, unions). Now we are nebulous. We have swallowed the myth that business has a heart, which is why feel guilt at letting it down.


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