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Crisis Talk

I’ve been a bit less attentive to the many crises analyses whipping around lately, partly because I was travelling, and partly because I get tired of reading the same old things… But here’s a few pieces from near and far that I think help move the discussion to a better place. First off, if you haven’t come upon it already, my friends from Midnight Notes have released a new pamphlet called Promissory Notes (pdf). Then, I found an excerpt from “Money and the Crisis of Civilization” by Charles Eisenstein and thought it a good contribution to a deeper critique of the economistic categories that the crises discussions usually get mired in (found it in the surprisingly politically sophisticated but New Age journal HopeDance which I was given by Lois Arkin at LA Ecovillage). Another old pal, Paul Mattick Jr., has written an excellent 4-part series on the economic crisis from a fairly traditional Marxist point of view, but in saying that, it has to be said that he’s far removed from the “overproduction” arguments that you hear from a lot of self-styled Marxists. And delightfully, he ends with this refreshing prose:

Will people instead turn their attention to bettering their own conditions of life in the concrete, immediate ways an unraveling economy will require? Will newly homeless millions look at newly foreclosed, empty houses, unsaleable consumer goods, and stockpiled government foodstuffs and see a way to sustain life? No doubt, as in the past, Americans will demand that industry or government provide them with jobs, but as such demands come up against economic limits, perhaps it will also occur to people that the factories, offices, farms, and other workplaces will still exist, even if they cannot be run profitably, and can be set into motion to produce goods that people need. Even if there are not enough jobs” paid employment, working for business or the state” there is work aplenty to be done if people organize production and distribution for themselves, outside the constraints of the business economy.

When the financial shit hit the fan last fall, everyone with access to the media, from the President to left-wing commentators like Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, agreed that it was necessary to save the banks with infusions of government cash lest the whole economy collapse. But, aside from the fact that the economy is collapsing anyway, the opposite is closer to the truth: if the whole financial system fell away, and money ceased to be the power source turning the wheels of production, the whole productive apparatus of society” machines, raw materials, and above all working people” would still be there, along with the human needs it can be made to serve. The fewer years of suffering and confusion it takes for people to figure this out, the better.

We also had a couple of very exciting Shaping San Francisco Talks in the last two Wednesdays (scroll down to Global Commons/Global Enclosures on Apr. 22, and Transition City: Permacultural Transformation on Apr. 29). So there’s a bunch of good links, but my favorite recent discovery is the piece by Franco Berardi “Bifo” that I linked to last post.  I’m going to excerpt it a bunch below, connecting it to some arguments I’ve been making in Nowtopia:

This is not a crisis, but the symptom of the incompatibility of the potency
of productive forces (cognitive labour in the global network) and
the paradigm of growth. This is not a crisis but the final collapse of a system
that has lasted for five hundred years.

I quote Marx to make a similar point:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production”¦ From [helping] development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.
” Karl Marx

Bifo goes on to describe two faces of the “post-modern” economy during the last thirty years: the ‘Net-Economy’ and ‘Criminal capitalism’. Interesting how closely this parallels my earlier post, the Tortoise vs. the Gangster! I think Bifo’s argument is a bit flakey after this initially solid assertion, because he uses the concept of “General Intellect” (something I talk about a lot in Nowtopia too) too narrowly. He conflates it with the cognitariat, the people working in immaterial production. He even goes so far to say that Obama winning was a victory of “the peaceful army of the general intellect all over the world” (!), and that Obama won thanks to the votes of cognitive labor (he might want to read Mike Davis’ “Obama at Manassas” in New Left Review for a painfully exhaustive analysis of the voting trends in the last election). In spite of this weakness, I still like his characterization of the underlying conflict: “it will be the fight of intellectual force against the brutal force of ignorance, violence, and profit.”

The privatization of life has pulverized social solidarity, and forced each person to think in isolation about his/her own necessities. Take for instance the privatisation of mobility, as a distortion of the public sphere. An irrational, polluting and cumbersome object, the private car (three tons of iron for the displacement of a body that weighs only eighty kilograms) has been the central object of the industrial production in the 20th century.

Why do cars have to be private? They could be public objects that every person could take and use for the time needed, then leave open in the street, ready for everyone else’s transportation. They could be substituted by much more comfortable public systems of transportation. Why has the public system of transportation been sabotaged by the ruling class, during the last decades? We know why very well. The capitalist economy creates scarcity in the domain of transportation, as in every other domain. The creation of scarcity is the premise of accumulation, made possible by the privatization of need.

Gotta love this clarity about the Car. All us Critical Massers have been arguing things like this for almost two decades. But not very many cyclists are this clear about the role of markets in creating scarcity. Bifo’s argument goes a lot further too. He characterizes his own invocation of a new kind of “communism” as a “Therapy of Singularization”. It sounds a bit silly at first, but spend a bit of time perusing ads for lonely hearts and you will surely encounter again and again a self-labeling “spiritual, not religious”. I had trouble figuring this out years ago when I noticed this, but I think it means simply “emotional literacy,” an ability to feel and express those feelings. I think Bifo is addressing the same thing:

The privatization of need and the reduction of well-being to acquisition has destroyed any sense of dignity and self-love. The social time of attention has been occupied by the flow of info-labor and advertising. Language has been absorbed by labour and deserted by affection. Love, tenderness, sex, affection, and care for others have been transformed in merchandise. Every single person has became the owner of many credit cards, a shopping machine, obliged to work more and more in order to pay an ever growing debt. Debt turned to be the universal chain, and this created the perfect conditions for universal collapse. At last the collapse did happen.

Growth will never be back, not only because people will never be able to pay for the Debt accumulated during the past three decades, but also because the physical planetary resources are close to exhaustion, and the nervous resources of the social brain are close to breakdown.

Bifo is nothing if not bizarrely comprehensive. He addresses himself to the fantasies of youthful anarchists too:

Scattered insurrections will take place in the coming years, but we should not expect much from them. They’ll be unable to touch the real centres of power because of the militarisation of metropolitan space, and they will not be able to gain much in terms of material wealth or political power. As the long wave of no-global moral protests could not destroy Neoliberal power, so the insurrections will not find a solution, not unless a new consciousness and a new sensibility surfaces and spreads, changing everyday life, and creating NON temporary autonomous zones rooted in the culture and consciousness of the global network.

Full employment is over. The world does not need so much labour and so much exploitation. A radical reduction of labour-time is necessary. Basic income has to be affirmed as a right to life independent of the employment and disjoined from the lending of labour-time. Competence, knowledge, and skills have to be separated from the economic context of exchange value, and rethought in terms of free social activity.

Long-time friends of the Committee for Full Enjoyment will appreciate his further elaboration:

In the anthropology of modern capitalism well-being has been equated with acquisition, never with enjoyment. In the course of the social turmoil we are going to live through in the coming years, the identification of well-being with property has to be questioned. It’s a political task, but above all it is a cultural task, and a psychotherapeutic one too.

This parallels pretty closely some of the commentaries I’ve gotten involved in after my Nowtopia talks. The need for radical patience as we continue to challenge the deepest institutions of our culture, wanting them to change quickly, but having to accept that it will take a lot longer than any of us want. As Bifo notes, it’s a cultural task and a psychotherapeutic one too. Luckily, the psychotherapeutic side IS accelerated by changing material conditions and experiences. The fact that we have daily experiences of unlimited noncommercial abundance helps corrode the religious adherence to private property. It’s also incumbent on us to rethink our notions of revolution, abandoning finally the militaristic fantasies the Bolsheviks and other communists stuck us with in the past century. As Bifo says: “We are not going to witness a cathartic event of Revolution, we’ll not see the sudden breakdown of State power. During the next months and years we’ll witness a sort of Revolution without a Subject.” The political and cultural task before us, according to Bifo? “Subjectivate this revolution [by] proliferating singularities!” Ouch!

Singularity does not mean “individual”, because you can have collective singularities. By the world singularity I mean an agency that does not follow any rule of conformity and repetition, and is not framed in any historical necessity.

After opening the space for this amorphous idea of the social subject, the rest of his piece reads very much like some of Nowtopia’s arguments:

Rather than a swift change in the social landscape, we should expect the slow surfacing of new trends: communities abandoning the field the crumbling ruling economies, more and more individuals giving up their search for a job and creating their own networks of services.

The myth of Growth is going to be abandoned and people will look for new modes of wealth distribution. Singular communities will transform the very perception of well-being and wealth in the sense of frugality and freedom. The cultural revolution that we need in this transition leads from the perception of wealth as the private ownership of a growing amount of goods that we cannot enjoy because we are too busy purchasing the money needed for acquisition, to the perception of wealth as the enjoyment of an essential amount of things that we can share with other people.

The de-privatization of services and goods will be made possible by this much needed cultural revolution. This will not happen in a planned and uniformed way, this will rather be the effect of the withdrawal of singular individuals and communities, and the result of the creation of an economy of shared use of common goods and services and the liberation of time for culture, pleasure and affection.

The proliferation of singularities (the withdrawal and building of non temporary autonomous zones) will be a pacific process, but the conformist majority will react violently, and this is already happening. The conformist majority is frightened by the fleeing away of intelligent energy and simultaneously is attacking the expression of intelligent activity. The situation can be described as a fight between the Mass Ignorance produced by Media-totalitarianism and the shared Intelligence of the General Intellect.

But the task of the general intellect is exactly this: fleeing from paranoia, creating zones of human resistance, experimenting [with] autonomous forms of production based on high-tech-low-energy production: whilst avoiding confrontation with the criminal class and the conformist population.

This last bit will be sure to annoy all formal Leftists and party-builders (my previous post on Teamsters and Plumbers was put up on sf.streetsblog.org and got a flurry of responses, including the most predictably old style CP smear: I’m clearly a right-winger!), but I think it’s a helpful way to think about things (if not necessarily the best behavioral guide!):

Politics and therapy will be one and the same activity in the coming time…

Our task will be the creation of social zones of human resistance that act like zones of therapeutic contagion.

Bifo gave his speech in London in February 2009. Lots to chew on!

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