Ghosts of Our Pasts: Neoliberal Crisis and Subjectivity (Part 2 of 2)

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Confronted with the fears and pessimism of financial instability, where does the individual turn to fight back? Not to capitalism, the unnameable Thing, for it appears much too large, too complex, for any one individual to rebel against. Maybe then to the foot-soldiers of capitalism, the so-called financial class? Again, an impossibility: “There are no enemies or people to negotiate with, but only mathematical implications, automatic, social concatenations that you cannot dismantle or avoid.”11 Great many have turned to outright resistance founded on new models of collectivity and experimentation, and it is a glorious thing, but there is a darker current that needs to be addressed. To quote again Christian Marazzi:

We thought capitalism would create the perfect conditions for perfect happiness by destroying every sense of belonging, by the nomadism of the rootless individual that results from the “deterritorialization” intrinsic to the development of the global economy. Now we have reached the apex of globalization and capitalist “deterritorialization,” and everything is returning: the Family, the nation state, religious fundamentalism. Everything is returning – but in a perverted, reactionary, conservative way, as the philosophers predicted… The potential liberty of the “transparent society” turns into its opposite: a racist intolerance that defends the borders of its homeland.12

If Lovecraft had warned against the dangers of modernist countercultures for the sake of the symbolic order, then today we’re facing the return of the symbolic order – with a vengeance. Greece provides an excellent example here. With an ongoing debt crisis that repeatedly thrusts the country into instability and austerity in exchange for aid, far right social elements have obtained an unprecedentedly high degree of visibility on the political stage. Central here is the Golden Dawn, a strongly nationalist party that has adopted the aesthetics of the long-gone Nazi party, from the salutes right down to the antisemitism. No stranger to the use of violence to further their means, the Golden Dawn enjoys an 11.5% rating in national opinion polls, and is making major inroads in the country’s teenage population. More disturbingly, the party is currently mobilizing a campaign aimed at students of primary school age.13

Golden Dawn supporters celebrate

Greece’s Golden Dawn

The scales of the intimate, territorial and the national is for Greeks and Greeks alone, the Golden Dawn argues, excluding the immigrant elements in the population from discourse. Political proposals have included a Greeks-only social welfare program and blood-bank and a re-institution of the death penalty (abolished in the country in 1993) for immigrants convicted of violent crimes. Elsewhere in the country, immigrants have been the victims of mob violence, acts met with a general sense of indifference by the police. In the case of an Iranian shopkeeper who received threats from the Golden Dawn (castigating him as the “cause of Greece’s problems,” members of the parties gave the shopkeeper the ultimatum of closing down or face the destruction of his property), the police informed him that “they did not have time to come to the aid of immigrants like him.”14

The rise of fascist tendencies is not limited to Greece alone. In France’s 2012 election cycle Marine Le Pen, the president of the far-right Front National (FN) party gained serious traction in the polls, coming out in third place at 17.90%. The reason? Neoliberal globalization: “It is the small shopkeepers who are going under because of the economic crisis and competition from the out-of-town hypermarkets; it is low-paid workers from the private sector; the unemployed. The FN scores well among people living in poverty, who have a real fear about how to make ends meet.”15 Walter Benjamin once famously said that fascism appeared wherever there was a failed revolution, but the irony here is that it is resulting not from a failed left-wing revolution but the failure (or is it the success?) of the neoliberal revolution.

The two examples listed above depict a state of affairs where the capitalist transnational structure is opposed not for an anti-capitalism, but for the pre-transnational market system; in other words, a reset back to the earlier forms of exploitation and accumulation that neoliberalism usurped. In addition to rising right-wing extremism in the Eurozone and beyond, traces of this ‘nostalgia’ for the Fordist mode can be found in much of the pop culture trends of the past two decades. Theorist Mathias Nilges had written a fascinating piece about this very topic in the journal Mediations, titled “The Anti-Anti-Oedipus.”16 His choice of wording in naming his article is important, alluding directly to Deleuze and Guattari’s famous Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, one of the first works in the intellectual trend that Baudrillard would later equate with capitalism’s own shifting logic. Without two much elaboration, a little clarification on the theoretical bent of Anti-Oedipus is necessary. The Oedipus that is reviled in the book’s name is the infamous Oedipus Complex identified by Sigmund Freud, which was seen as a necessary passage of sorts in the individual’s development and entry into the wider spaces of organized civilization. For Deleuze and Guattari, Freud’s Oedipus and Hegel’s dialectic were analogous concepts – neither, they argued, was some unconscious or material formulation that naturally occurred, but were inherent byproducts resulting from social discipline and formal hierarchy. To bring this closer to our current conversation, Guattari himself was a close colleague of Jacques Lacan, and in many ways his work with Deleuze can be read as an attempt to radicalize his particular psychoanalytic approach. For Lacan, the Freudian Oedipus was central to the symbolic order – the order, in fact, manifested itself as the “name of the father.”

Using this is a framework, Nilges’ analysis concerns itself primarily with the popular novel and film Fight Club, a nihilistic tale of an unnamed narrator who produces a schizophrenic hallucination of himself, Tyler Durden. Together with Tyler, the narrator forms ‘fight clubs’ – underground spaces where men can engage in physical confrontation – which rapidly evolve into a terrorist resistance group called “Project Mayhem.” The narrator here represents subjectively in the neoliberal age in multiple ways: for one, he is schizophrenic, his senses disordered; thus, following Deleuze and Guattari’s logic, he is both un-Oedipalized and free from the march of dialectics. He is also presented as a recall coordinator at a large, nameless automobile firm, where his immaterial labor reduces people and their everyday experiences in relation to commodities to statistical algorithms. The opening portions of the novel and film depict the narrator in a state of horror not only at the violent meaninglessness of his job, but also at his perpetual alienation in the consumer market place; he speaks of his approach to decorating his apartment with an “IKEA nesting instinct.” By contrast, his hallucinatory alter-ego in the form of Tyler is from an age of material labor, with extensive Fordist-era knowledge of craftsmanship and working class ‘tricks of the trade.’ For the narrator, and the lost men who join the fight clubs, Tyler quickly becomes a father figure, creating rules and dogmas for the club and the subsequent Project Mayhem to follow, a new symbolic order and frame of references in the void of those that had been lost.

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Full of handy knowledge: the narrator and Tyler Durden

After the film’s debut, Fight Club became a curious item of popular counterculture: with its strict anti-commodity message and revolutionary rhetoric – the film ends with bombs going off in the headquarters of major credit card companies- the schizoid figure of Tyler Durden struck a deep chord with the blossoming alter-globalization movement. But Nilges points out that Tyler himself appears not as an anarchic left-wing rebel, but as quasi-fascist dictator crafted in the distinctive aura of modernity’s managerialism. For example, an obvious nod to Nazi Germany is found in Tyler and the narrator’s rendering of human fat into soap, while the transformation of Project Mayhem’s daily life into an “agrarian collective” can easily be read as an allusion to the rhetoric of Stalin’s USSR.18 But the larger indicator of the work’s stance – as not revolutionary fiction, but a captured image of ‘Fordist’ nostalgia – is that the Oedipus Complex itself is literally reconstructed in the character dynamics of the story. Tyler, presented as the father figure of the narrator and the participants in the Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem, has a love interest in the form of Marla Singer, who also plays the hidden object of lust for the narrator. “Me,” the narrator tells us, “I’m six years old, again, and taking messages back and forth between my estranged parents.” Regimented by Tyler’s driven dogmas and resentment for post-Fordist commodity culture, these multiple and overlapping familial constructs take the form of an authoritarian family, the psychological bedrock of the authoritarian system, in both its milder Fordist democracy and its Fordist fascistic forms. As Wilhelm Reich wrote in 1946:

The psychoanalysis of men and women of all ages, all countries, and every social class shows that: The interlacing of the socio-economic structure with the sexual structure of society and the structural reproduction of society take place in the first four or five years and in the authoritarian family. The church continues this function later. Thus, the authoritarian state gains an enormous interest in the authoritarian family. It becomes the factory in which the state and structure are molded.

The conflation of lines between the family, the church, the state, and the factory – emblems that bring to mind Foucault – cited by Reich here has direct relevance the message of Flight Club: that resistance to that which ails us can only happen in the Fordist sphere, and thus post-Fordism must be rolled back into Fordism if any kind of revolutionary action is to take place. Tyler, the father, lays this out to his child soldiers by bringing forth the ultimate father, God himself:

We are God’s middle children, according to Tyler Durden, with no special place in history and no special attention. Unless we get God’s attention, we have no hope for damnation or redemption. Which is worse, hell or nothing? Only if we’re caught and punished can we be saved.”

If Oedipus is the unspoken transcript of the Fight Club family, then the complex’s philosophical counterpart, the Hegelian dialectic, can be read in these references to “history”: if the children of post-Fordism have no place in history, it is because the current epoch exists outside the non-reality of the dialectic. Nilges sees the physical confrontations between the club’s fighters as a literal symbol of the dialectic’s clashing of thesis and anthesis, but I believe that it is in the conclusion of the novel itself that provides the biggest clue. While the movie ended with the bombing of the credit card companies, the book’s finale was the destruction of the Museum of Natural History – an act that symbolically negates the history that is ended, creating a blank slate, a tabula rasa, for dialectical history to begin. Only here, one can see Tyler/the narrator saying, can we liberate ourselves.


Slavoj Zizek

In light of this strange nostalgia, it should not be surprising then that there is a current resurgence of dialectical thinking in the left’s intelligentsia. Frederic Jameson, who made a name for himself as one of the first theorists to identify the traits and characteristics of postmodernism, has written a lengthy defense of Hegel in his Valences of the Dialectic. Meanwhile, Slavoj Zizek recently published his magnum opus of hyper-Hegelianism, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Furthermore, both these thinkers have resurrected the Communist current in the truest sense of the word – complete with the Soviet-esque treatment of the state form. “If you have no clear idea of what you want to replace the state with,” Zizek writes with Vladimir Lenin in mind, “you have no right to subtract/withdraw from the state. Instead of taking a distance from the state, the true task should be to make the state itself work in a non-statal way.”21 Thus the line is drawn in the sand between post-communist non-Hegelians like Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri (the latter two, incidentally, had excitably proclaimed in Empire that “It is our turn now to cry ‘Big government is over!’ Why should that slogan be the exclusive property of the conservatives?”)22, etc, and the neo-communist pro-Hegelians like Zizek.

Potential Futures

With the unstable subjectivity, swinging from the wild abandon of post-Fordism to the angry nostalgia for the comfortable strengths of Fordism, what will the future look like? Bifo, undoubtedly looking at Greece’ Golden Dawn and the rise of xenophobic nationalism throughout the Eurzone, paints a bleak picture:

Insurrection will expand and proliferate in the upcoming months, yet it will not be a lighthearted undertaking, nor will it be a linear process of social emancipation. Society has broken up, rendered fragile and fragmented by thirty years of perpetual precarization, uncontrolled and rampant competition, and psychic poisoning produced and controlled by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, and their criminal media empires. There will be little cheer in the coming insurrection, which will often by marked by racism and self-defeating violence.

It is foreseeable that to avoid this kind of negative chaosmos, the networks of transnational governance will step up their managerial apparatuses to stabilize the market; it is certainly possible that the near future reformist currents will propel a kind of new New Deal to stave off both the left and right’s insurrection. Thus, at the apex of neoliberalism, the state itself could return, replete with populist Keynesianism for the sake of the system itself. But while Roosevelt’s planning was limited to the geography of the United States alone, a new New Deal would disperse itself across the globe. Such a momentary fix would ultimately serve to protect and insulate the system; recomposition of discipline and control is the defining characteristic of response to capitalist crisis. “Is it possible,” asks sociologist William Robinson, “will respond to crisis and mass rebellion through a new restructuring that leads to some different models of world capitalism – perhaps a global Keynesianism involving transnational redistribution and transnational regulation of finance capital? Will rebellious forces from below be co-opted into some new reformed capitalist order?”24 On the microlevel, we can see that has already come to fruition in many places; for example, President Obama road the coattails of a co-opted anti-war movement25, before implementing a quasi-Keynesian bailout with the aid of a series of Wall Street insiders. Time will only tell if these acts of crony capitalism, the kind of thing predicted by none other than the anti-Keynesian Austrian economists who launched neoliberalism in the first place, will become a matter of formal or informal transnational policy.

How do we avoid such a state of affairs? The emergent negative subjectivities briefly touched on here are the result of a void, Deleuze and Guattari’s black hole, where the lack of the symbol order and subsequent free-floating nature of things has translated itself into cries for centralization and managerialism, the strong state beckoned forth by the cop inside our heads. A simplistic rendering of a solution then would be to fill the void with alternatives, community and affect-based solutions can act as a transformative agent when they confront the stinging bite of crisis. An excellent illustration of this can be found in Occupy’s response to Hurricane Sandy: with a FEMA gutted under President Bush and turned into an outsourcing bonanza to private contractors,26 OWS moved from sheer insurrection to a community resource. Distributions sites in Brooklyn were established, along with motor pools, tech supervisors, medical teams, and other relief tactics were deployed in the wake of the storm. Teams went door to door to residencies delivering food, flashlights and blankets. As wedding registries were created to receive donated goods and money flowed in from the outside, one activist described the effort as “a laterally organized rapid-response team”26– indicating that disaster aid need not only be an affair of political bureaucracy and marketing stipulation, but something that could be as inventive and creative as the original spirit that drove the occupation of Zuccotti Park.


Occupy Sandy banner

If there had been no movement there in New York City already, if the void left by the ineffectual management of FEMA and large, corporate-aligned charities had been allowed to fester and grow, what would have happened? We all remember the events that unfolded in New Orleans not so long ago, when Hurricane Katrina transformed the cityscape into a post-apocalyptic wasteland dotted by death, military patrol, and social disintegration – a breeding space for violent negative subjectivities. We can rely on these anecdotes of momentary, regional crisis, but they reflect the larger and global crises of neoliberal capitalism. What would we rather exist in? The continuum, with its opportunities for fivefold levels of becoming and solidarity, or in the folds of the state, of authoritarian structure? The way out is clear, but the way of going about it isn’t. The only thing left then is to begin to build, as they did in New York, to erect the things that could replace the system on the way to there.

11Franco “Bifo” Berardi The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance Semiotext(e), 2012, pgs. 79-80

12Marazzi, pg. 73

13“Golden Dawn’s ‘national awakening’ sessions” The Economist, March 4th, 2013

14Liz Alderman “Greek Far Right Hangs a Target on Immigrants” The New York Times July 10th, 2012

15Hugh Schofield “What next for Marine Le Pen’s National Front?” BBC News April 24th, 2012

16Mathias Nilges “The Anti-Anti-Oedipus: Representing Post-Fordist Subjectivity” Mediations, Volume 3, No. 2


19Wilhelm Reich The Mass Psychology of Fascism Farrar, Stras, & Giroux, 1970 (reprint) pgs. 29-20

20Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club Owl Books, 1997 pg. 133, quoted in Nilges, “The Anti-Anti-Oedipus”

21Slavoj Zizek First as Tragedy, then as Farce Verso, 2009 pg. 130

22Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pg. 349

23Berardi The Uprising pg. 49

24William I. Robinson “Global Rebellion: The Coming Chaos?” in Rebecca Fisher (ed.) Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Organization of Consent Corporate Watch, 2013, pg. 66

25See my “Intervention Mentality and the Spectacle of Joseph Kony” Dissident Voice, April 14th, 2012

26See Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism Picador, 2007, pgs. 517-522, 527-528

26Alan Feuer “Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief” New York Times November 9th, 2013

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6 Responses to Ghosts of Our Pasts: Neoliberal Crisis and Subjectivity (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Brian Holmes says:

    In “Nomadology” Deleuze and Guattari discuss the ontological unity of what they call “royal science” and “nomad science”:

    “What we have, rather, are two formally different conceptions of science, and, ontologically, a single field of interaction in which royal science continually appropriates the contents of vague or nomad science while nomad science continually cuts the contents of royal science loose. At the limit, all that counts is the constantly shifting borderline.”

    What if this were also true of that fictional monolith that we call – by abbreviation – the State? What would it take to imagine the process of social coordination as an open, heterogeneous, multiscalar experiment in which breaks and failures were treated with as much respect as efficiencies and solutions? Durkheim wrote – amazingly – that “the State is the organ of social thought.” To be sure, this is the very antithesis of the present situation, where the State is the organ of class thought, and its “thinking” is reduced to the pitiful imperative of accumulation. But it seems to me that the whole challenge of the present dangerous conjuncture is to *enact* an utterly different form (or “multiform”) of coordination that could actually take awy and dissolve the power of the transnational capitalist state, without any descent into the war of all against all that capitalism itself constantly prefigures.

    best, BH

    • edmundberger says:

      Great questions, Brian! I think a good dovetail to this is why I think that the model of “the multitude” posed by the Negri, Virno, Berardi etc. is a much better approach at this juncture than the traditional ‘proletariat’ – is a transnational ‘multiscalar’ topography really something that can be rendered down to a strict classist approach? Or is it that class thought only reinforced due to interwoven corporate/statist assemblages? After all, Deleuze and Guattari did argue that the state was the despotic signifier, and that it this very overcoding mechanism that made production a mode.

      But, as you point out, the state could very well be something that is perpetually shifting, fluctuating. This is certainly true, not only with the ever-changing approaches governments take to public policy in response to alterations to the production and accumulation model, but even more so if we consider the “state” as being both the governing institution and the all the social relations that are bound up inside it. As social relations are constantly changing in themselves, folding and unfolding in complex hybridizations and opening themselves up to potential micropolitical shifts, multiscalar coordination, I think, would have to take the fabric of everyday life as its primary playing field. Communication and flexibility is crucial – but that is were the problematic arises, as these are the two keywords of neoliberal’s cybernetic controls. Of course, as you point out, we need an experimental space where “breaks and failures [are] treated with as much respect as efficiencies and solutions”… are breaks and failures exactly what cybernetic models try avoid, with its distinction between positive and negative feedback? On another level, its mindboggling to attempt to imagine what forms the production of subjectivity would take in a place where break and failure was not treated with fear and disapproval.

  2. Brian Holmes says:

    You know, I gather there’s a whole tradition stemming from Poulantzas that makes out the State to be much more complex, fragmentary, and in a word, multiple than the usual totalizing concept. I am sure Poulantzas is right about that, but still the important thing is how to stop the more concentrated and powerful aspects of the state, how to open up common spaces to gather a different kind of strength, how to set limits on the tremendous collusion of state functions and capital interests… It seems to me that the undiscovered continent of politics is not some total emancipation but a sustained, contradictory, antagonistic, subversive and always arms-length relation between the really existing aspects of the state and a non-state public sphere which is still largely to be invented and practiced. On this regard, I like the concluding remarks of your article very much.

    Otherwise, yeah, cybernetics has not been very big on respect! But check out Maturana and Varela, or Heinz von Foerster, or an artist like Juan Downey, or Bateson himself in his later years when, I am sure, he deeply regretted writing the infamous letter to Donovan. I think all those figures exemplified the ontological ambiguity of royal and nomad science (not for nothing is the very title of A Thousand Plateaus a quote from Bateson…).

    • edmundberger says:

      Occupy Sandy, and the great Occupy movement itself, would certainly be reflected of what you’re talking about, as there was no single signifier that could explain the purpose of the movement. Among the multiple strands that were brought together (ecology, identity politics, debt, lack of opportunity, etc) there was a sort of ambivalence towards the state – yes, a great deal of protest was directed at the state, but the communally-oriented meshwork of general assemblies, working groups and the spokes council (even if this caused some deal of grief, at least when I was in NYC) formed something that operated beyond the confines of the state, and it was certainly something that found beauty in both success and breakage. Occupy could certainly be viewed as a ‘scouting party’ in this ‘undiscovered continent of politics.’

      Could a larger space that operated along similar lines of mutatable direct democracy be considered state-like, even if we approach the state in more fragmented and complex understanding? Would it be, as Zizek suggests, a state-form that operates in a non-state manner? It could be a radical inversion of Gramsci’s passive revolution, with its gears stripped of their glacial pace and structural underpinnings.

  3. Brian Holmes says:

    I think the capitalist state will be with us for a long time to come. Right now it is in the process of becoming radically more capitalist, to the point where a Bloomberg presidency and an entire country run like an armed and dangerous algorithmic trading operation is totally possible… What is urgent and can be done is to create autonomous modes of organization that simultaneously protest and create other worlds, other life-chances for the people who get involved. It seems to me these things go together: you can only influence the state from a resolutely non-state position. It is crucial to go on engaging because we can’t get rid of it and it gets ever more threatening. But the engagement has to be on the basis of autonomy, of distance, of refusal, of otherness. It is a complex position to hold but I think it applies everywhere. So I tend (as usual) to disagree with Zizek, I think the state-form will continue to operate in state-like manners. In order to block its abuses and repurpose some aspects or fragments of it, people have to develop non-state forms of coordination, but without the naive belief that in so doing they will simply replace the state, not any time soon anyway. There is no glimmer of that anywhere. Iceland just voted back the old parties. Durkheim was wrong. The state cannot be the organ of social thought. But a polymorphous social thinking, one that builds up para-institutional forms, skates on the thin ice of engaged dissent and accepts to be the continuous antithesis or universal dissolvant of the state, could and sometimes does offer an alternative, a rivalry, another path. Perhaps it could lead on to something else: but first it has to exist and consist. Which it does, at times, and that’s what makes social life such an adventure in my experience…

  4. S.C. Hickman says:

    Rereading this again reminded me of that underlying occult strain that seems always to slip by unnoticed within current scholarship… The Golden Dawn was of course the first great imperial magic club of the late 19th Century with W.B. Yeats, many French Intellectuals, and of course the notorious Aleister Crowley … Israel Regardie who codified all this in his book of that name:

    An essential textbook in magical lodges and occult schools, The Golden Dawn includes initiation rituals, a complete system of Tarot, a ritual for invisibility, secrets of invocation and evocation, the mysteries of kabbalah, meditation techniques, Enochian magic, and much more.

    John Michael Greer of course the current Arch Druid has his own take in bringing back visions like Oswald Spengler’s Declines… peak oil catastrophes, etc.

    Strange this alliance of master-signifiers so distant but so close, since the Golden Dawn was originally part of an early version of the Nazi pre-cursor Silver Star (later SS) movement during the 1880’s…

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