Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fifth Circle – “Less possessions, more connections!”

Thirty years of mass unemployment, “crisis,” sluggish growth, and still they want to make us believe in the economy. Thirty years punctuated, it is true, by a few interludes of illusion; from 1981-83, France had the illusion that a left wing government that could make people happy; then we had the cash-in years (1986-89), where we all became rich businessmen and speculators; the Internet interlude (1998-2001), where we all found virtual employments by dint of plugging ourselves in and staying there, where France, many colored but one, multicultural and cultivated, brought all the world cups home. But at that point we spent all our reserves of illusion, touched bottom; we’re flat broke – even if we don’t look it.
From all that we had to understand that it isn’t the economy that’s in crisis; the economy is the crisis; it’s not that we can’t get any work, it’s that there’s too much of it; all weighed in, it’s not crisis but growth that’s depressing us. We must admit that for us the litany of the stock market rates has just about as much meaning as a Latin mass. Lucky for us, we who have come to this conclusion are many. We aren’t talking about all those people living off little thefts, trafficking of all kinds, or who have been on welfare for 6 years. Or all those who just can’t manage to identify with their jobs any more and instead put more into leisure. We aren’t talking about all those who are locked up, underground, the ones who do the minimum and live to the max. Or about all those who are stricken by that strange mass detachment that makes the example of the pensioners and the cynical super-exploitation of adjustable labor forces stand out even more. We aren’t talking about them, though indeed they will probably be coming to similar conclusions one way or another.
What we’re talking about is all these countries, all these whole continents that have lost their economic faith, having seen the IMF’s Boeing jet depart amid crashes and losses, or having felt the World Bank’s heat a bit. They’re not talking too much over there about this crisis of purpose that the economy is trudging through all over the West. In Guinea, Russia, Argentina, Bolivia, there’s a violent and durable discrediting of this religion and its clergies going on. “What do you call a thousand IMF economists lying at the bottom of the sea?” ... “A good start!” so goes the joke at the World Bank. Russian saying: “Two economists meet. The one asks the other, ‘do you know what’s happening?’ The other replies, ‘well, hold on and I’ll explain it to you.’ ‘No, no, says the first, explaining it isn’t hard -- I’m an economist too, you know. No, what I’m asking is: do you understand it?’” Sections of the priesthood itself feign dissidence and criticize the dogma. That slightly alive current of supposed “economic science” – a current that humorlessly calls itself “non-autistic economy” – now makes a living out of dismantling a few usurpations, doing a few sleight of hand tricks, adulterating the indexes by a science whose only tangible role is to bounce the monstrance around the crack-pot ideas of the dominant ones, and give a slight aura of ceremony to their calls to submission, and, at last, as all religions have always done, to supply explanations. Because the overall sickness becomes immediately intolerable when it appears for what it is: ungrounded and unreasonable.
Money isn’t respected anywhere anymore, neither by those who have it nor by those who don’t. The answer given by twenty percent of German youths, when asked what they wanted to do later in life, was “artist.” Work is no longer sustainable as a given of the human condition. Corporate accountancy admits that it doesn’t know where value comes from. The market’s bad reputation would have done away with it a good decade ago, without the rage and vast resources of its apologists. Progress has everywhere become a synonym for disaster, in common parlance. Everything flees in the economy’s world, as everything fled the USSR in Andropov’s time. Anyone who’s looked a little into the last years of the USSR will easily recognize in all the appeals to volunteerism by our rulers, in all their pretense of soaring towards a future that they’ve lost all trace of, all these professions of faith in “reform,” of anything and everything, the first cracks in the Wall’s structure. The collapse of the socialist bloc didn’t seal the victory of capitalism, but merely attested to the failure of one of its forms. Anyway, the USSR being put to death wasn’t the act of a people in revolt; the nomenklatura just got changed around. By proclaiming the end of socialism, a fraction of the ruling class right away freed itself of all the anachronistic duties that once tied it to the people. It took private control over what it already controlled in the name of all. “Because they pretend to pay us, let’s pretend to work,” we said in the factories. And the oligarchy answered: “No problem, we’ll stop pretending, then!” Some get the raw materials, the industrial infrastructure, the military-industrial complex, the banks, the nightclubs, and others misery or emigration. No one believed in it anymore in the USSR under Andropov, and no one believes it anymore in France in the meeting halls, workshops, and offices. “No Problem!” answer the bosses and governors, who don’t even take the time anymore to soften up “the hard laws of the economy,” relocating a factory in the middle of the night and telling all the personnel that it’s been shut down early the next morning, and never hesitate anymore to send in the GIGN to break a strike – like they do over at SNCM or during the occupation of a sorting office in Rennes last year. All the murderous activity of the present power structure comes down to managing these ruins on the one hand, and on the other setting up the basis for a “new economy.”
But indeed, we were made for the economy. For generations we’ve been disciplined, pacified, we’ve been made into naturally productive subjects, just content to consume. And that reveals everything we had to force ourselves to forget: that the economy is political. And that this politics is today a politics of selection operating at the heart of a humanity that has become massively superfluous. From Colbert to De Gaulle by way of Napoleon III, the State has always seen economy as politics, no less than the bourgeoisie that drew profits from it and the proletarians that confronted it did. And that strange intermediary stratum of the population, that curious, powerless aggregate of those who don’t take part, the petty bourgeoisie, is the only group pretending to believe in the economy as if it were a reality – because that way it can preserve its neutrality. In France, small businessmen, small bosses, little bureaucrats, execs, professors, journalists, and middlemen of all sorts make up this non-class, this social gelatin composed of the masses of those who simply want to live their little private lives far from History and its tumult. This marshy mass tends to be the champion of false consciousness, ready at any time in its half-sleep to keep its eyes shut to the war raging all around. Every time they almost wake up a new fad is invented and sold to them. For the last ten years, ATTAC and its improbable Tobin tax – the enforcement of which would have required no less than the creation of a global government – its apology for the “real economy” against the financial markets and its touching nostalgia for the State. The comedy can go on as long as they want; it’s still in the end just a lifeless farce. One fad replaces another; now it’s degrowth. While ATTAC and its popular education courses tried to save the economy as a science, degrowth is an attempt to save it as a morality. Just one alternative to stop the coming apocalypse: de-grow. Consume and produce less. Become joyously frugal. Eat organic, ride a bike, stop smoking, closely examine the ingredients in the products you buy. Be content with strictly what’s necessary. Voluntary simplicity. “Rediscover the true wealth in the blooming of convivial social relations in a healthy world.” “Stop extracting our natural capital.” Move towards a “healthy economy.” “Prevent regulation by chaos.” “Don’t generate social crises that would question democracy and humanism.” Basically: become thrifty. Go back to daddy’s economy, to the golden age of the middle class: the 1950s. “When the individual is thrifty, his property fills its office perfectly, which is to let him enjoy his own life, sheltered from public existence or just in his own private enclosure.”
A graffiti writer in a handmade hoodie drinks a fruit cocktail among friends on the terrace of an ethnic cafe. Eloquent, cordial, speaking softly, not making too much noise or being too silent, they look at each other with smiles, and are a bit beatific, even: ever so civilized. Later some of them go off to do some hoeing in the community garden, and others go make pottery, zen, or an animated film. Communing with the just sentiment for the formation of a new humanity, a wiser, more refined one, the final one. And they’re right. Apple and de-growth understand each other in a strange way on the subject of the civilization of the future. The idea to return to the economy of yesteryear that some have is the opportune smoke screen behind which hides the idea of the great technological leap forward that others have. Because there’s no going back, no returns in History. The injunction to go back to the past only expresses one of the forms of consciousness of one’s time, and rarely is it the least modern form. De-growth is not just coincidentally the banner of the dissident ad-men of adbusters magazine. The inventors of ‘zero growth’ – the 1972 club in Rome – were themselves a bunch of industrialists and bureaucrats that had the support of the MIT cyberneticians.
This convergence is not fortuitous. It’s part of the forced march to find a way to relieve the economy. Capitalism has made profit out of destroying everything that lived off social connections, and is now reconstructing them on its own basis. The metropolitan sociability of today is its incubator. In the same way as it raped the natural world, it’s today throwing itself into the crazy idea of reconstituting that world as controlled environments with all the proper surveillance sensors installed. There’s a new economy for this new humanity, an economy that doesn’t just want to be a separate sphere of existence but its very fabric, that wants to be the substance of human relationships; a new definition of work, as working on yourself; Capital as human capital; a new idea of production as the production of relational goods, and consumption as the consumption of situations; and above all a new concept of value that embraces all the qualities of human beings. This “bioeconomy” that’s being born now sees the world as a closed system to be managed, and claims to be setting up the basis for a science that will integrate all the parameters of life. Such a science that might one day make us look back fondly to the good old days of rigged indexes where they said they were measuring the people’s happiness by the growth of the GNP, but where no one believed a lick of it.
“Revalorize the non-economic aspects of life” is a watchword of de-growth and at the same time Capital’s reform program. Eco-villages, video surveillance cameras, spirituality, biotech, conviviality, all belong to the same “civilization paradigm” that’s forming now, a paradigm of total economy built from the bottom up. Its intellectual template is cybernetics, the science of systems, that is, of controlling them. To definitively impose the economy, its ethics of work and stinginess, they needed to intern and eliminate, over the course of the 17th century, all the idlers, beggars, witches, loonies, merry revelers, and other poor people without any profession; a whole humanity, which by its very existence gave the lie to the order of interest and self-restraint. The new economy won’t be imposed without a similar selection of the subjects and zones most suitable for the transformation. The ever-announced coming chaos will be either the occasion for that sorting-out process, or that of our victory over this whole detestable project.

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