The Ends of the World // Kant and Fisher

On theory., Uncategorized

On imagining futures.

A philosophical attempt to write a general world history according to a plan of nature which aims at a perfect civil association of mankind must be considered possible and even helpful to this intention of nature.

            Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” (1784)

Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.

            Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009)

It’s hard to take the long view of history, and even when we do it’s usually wrong. We hold such small capacities to see and to know, but this nevertheless fails to deter us from thinking in terms of futures. Toward what does the arc of the universe bend? And what provokes us to seek out such a determinate logic?

As a boy, being fed histories of the great upheavals of the twentieth century—the trenches, the Holocaust, the dropping of the big bombs, Vietnam, the birth of computers—I would imagine the possibility that things might turn a corner and become interesting again. What if the rollercoaster sequence of all the accidents that happen, like the Mamba that I used to ride a dozen times per visit at our local amusement park, could just possibly be cresting that first big hill. I would lean back, shield my eyes from too premature a view of the drop, and await the plunge into the dynamic course that would always unfurl me along with it.

When September 11th happened, I was in the third grade, too young to know that something new had occurred and too young still to know that the ground of the new tends toward mundanity. Spectacles become background noise before they finish playing themselves out, if they ever do. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have trundled on in the background of the larger half of my life, so far from Kansas and Nebraska, and I’ve managed to forget about them more than I’ve remembered that, no, they still haven’t stopped. It took me several years before that old rollercoaster started making me nauseous. Despite the constancy of its path, how well I knew each pivot, rise, and fall, I just stopped riding along. I found it impossible to enjoy as rapturously as I used to. I could watch, uninspired but sufficiently composed, from the ground.

Later, I learned to spectate lethargically regarding other affairs. Some of my college pals and I would feel that “realism” was just another word for “cynicism,” and so we called ourselves cynics. We understood that caring too much about a cause was just another way of being strung along like we had been for years in our own lives by other grand redemptive narratives, messianic tales about the end of history and the beginning of a new one. Disillusionment—this was a term I learned from history class in the context of World War I, the crushed dreams of the entire modern epoch, a limp response following a confrontation with the great failure of their highest hopes in one prolonged blustering display of the great stupidity that humanity breeds in its advancement. Disillusionment—the only response we can muster when a redemptive myth not only fails but was proven to be a damning joke all along. As with all jokes, what makes it a joke is that, in the end, it comes to nothing, though everything else carries on. It’s the sudden violent recognition both that an illusion existed in the place of what you thought was reality and that the illusion can no longer be maintained.

Jean-François Lyotard was famous for declaring in the late 70’s that what defined the contemporaneous “postmodern” era was a general “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Here, “metanarratives” means any grand story that fundamentally serves to explain subordinate daily goings-on and thinking in society, a story that usually includes the end-game teleologies of various social forces. Whether or not that general incredulity was true of that era of recent history—and I have reason to think that it’s a bit reductive (and perhaps elitist) as a descriptive account of social phenomena—I certainly think it can be complicated today. If we think about the course of the later 20th century into the 21st, it is true that certain foundational modern metanarratives had apparently proven indefensible. As an example, the great modern philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose thinking arguably had a crucial impact on the whole modern epoch, in the late 18th century theorized history as a grand revolution of slow time. He argued that, by means of the various accidents and self-interested activities of humankind, an ultimate perfect state of rational relations between humans on earth could be achieved. This was not a revolution that could be forced into being by a singular act of the general will at a moment in time. Rather, it would be a moral revolution, in which humankind, through a process of incremental progress, would as a race achieve the full use of its reason and would therefore seek to act with a good will at all times. A cosmopolitan society of security and freedom would be constructed, with freedom defined by Kant as acting upon the rational use of one’s faculty of moral judgment. One day, by means of the long winding course of history, a future would arrive in which humans relate rightly to each other.

Kant’s was a utopian vision that every century seems more and more unlikely. It is, however, worth noting that his utopia ends in a stasis of civic relations: a perfect state of human relations is achieved at the teleological end of history. This leads me to my complication of Lyotard’s claim. Modern metanarratives of history, such as Kant’s, still exist today but have become mutated to endorse the current state of affairs. Moreover, where these narratives still exist, they often exist as Janus-faced, claiming a narrative of progress while simultaneously running on the premise that the teleological end of such progress has fundamentally already been achieved. Today the mutated metanarrative exists as a function of neoliberal capitalism’s self-reproduction.

The late Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism, interrogates capitalism’s claim that “there is no alternative” (as famously put forth by Margaret Thatcher in 1980). This claim fuels the engine of capitalism’s dominance: the idea that no alternative future can be imagined beyond a global “free market” economy and its bedmate liberal republican democracy. This claim was also made by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argues that human ideological evolution has concluded its progress and that, in a way, Kant’s teleological utopia had been achieved in the liberal democratic form of government. “Capitalist realism” as Fisher defines it is this: the belief that capitalism can be the only reality. It subsumes all resistance to it, and it defines all of its goals of progress within its extant bounds. Fisher writes, “The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion”—a tragically ironic comment, since Fisher would later, in January of this year, commit suicide due to his own depression.

Within the regime of capitalist realism, there can be no future, because everything that happens is a playing out of different iterations of the present state of affairs. Our best hopes for leadership lay with those who will uphold the status quo and save it from decrepitude—hence the (in my opinion, mistaken) perception that Hillary Clinton was a progressive candidate, when in fact she would uphold many centrist policies that would continue the violence of neoliberal capital’s imperialism both at home and abroad, maintaining both the financiers’ grip on domestic “democracy” and the global state of emergency that liberal democracy maintains to legitimize its wars. Even the “hope and change” of Barack Obama’s campaign turned out basically to be more of the same, though in a voice that was more pleasant to our ears than his predecessor’s.

Fisher titles his first chapter after the phrase associated with Frederic Jameson, that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” When I hear this phrase, I relate it to the form of capitalism that was closest to home for me growing up, by which I mean capitalist evangelicalism—or, possibly, evangelical capitalism, because it’s nearly impossible to imagine evangelical Christianity today without its capitalist core. This religiously-inflected capitalist realism truly brings together the two faces of the current system in rather a clever, if somewhat subterranean, manner. The American system of Christian evangelicalism, on the one face, culturally fights tooth and nail in defense of and toward the intensification of neoliberal capitalism. They call for the privatization of public goods and public care, as well as the tax-sheltering of private institutions. They define freedom in terms inextricable from market freedom: because of Christ’s saving grace we are afforded the freedom to understand ourselves in whatever Christian-identitarian terms we like, but the actual acting out of that freedom must go no further than what the doctrines of financial maximization allows. None of our absolute freedom may presume to provide public structures or public goods to preserve the actual positive freedom required for hard-pressed communities to flourish. In this sense, evangelicalism, like capitalist realism writ large, believes that the end of history has arrived and that it is very good.

On its other face, Christian evangelicalism—whose doctrines of dispensationalist millenarianism developed concurrently with post-industrial capitalism—believes the end of history is imminent, that it is yet to arrive but will arrive, one day soon, like a thief in the night. With regard to this religious sect, I would take Jameson and Fisher one further to say that it is easiest to imagine the end of the world and to believe that there is no alternative to capitalism. The two claims support each other in political factuality, if not in logic. Kant presciently described the same dark chiliasm of end-times-obsessed Christians when he distinguished the three possible ways to predict the course of history in his essay “A Renewed Attempt to Answer the Question: ‘Is the Human Race Continually Improving?’.” One of those options is what he calls, intriguingly, “moral terrorism.” He defines it as follows, in terms that sound a lot like the signs-of-the-times sermons I heard as a teenager:

A process of deterioration in the human race cannot go on indefinitely, for mankind would wear itself out after a certain point had been reached. Consequently, when enormities go on piling up and up and the evils they produce continue to increase, we say: ‘It can’t get much worse now.’ It seems that the day of judgement is at hand, and the pious zealot already dreams of the rebirth of everything and of a world created anew after the present world has been destroyed by fire.

In the evangelical Christian imagination, the best system we can hope for on Earth is capitalism, with all of its cruelties and incoherencies. But that’s the key: on Earth. For them, there is no need to imagine alternative futures, because Jesus is coming back to save humanity from itself, to destroy all the kingdoms on Earth and to install a new kingdom on a new Earth, one that will reign perfectly forever and ever. One must wonder what sort of monarchy that will be—perhaps a bit like Kant’s ostensibly beloved Frederick the Great’s, with a little hedge-fund investing mixed in, and in which all the streets of gold are owned by private proprietors. But it’s not just that there’s no need to imagine alternatives to capitalist realism when the world will ultimately end by fire anyway. This end-times theology enforces capitalist realism’s present reign—the intensification of disparities in economic well-being, the willingness to benefit off of what must necessarily be a doomed system, and to keep enjoying the prosperity God gives to his chosen ones.

It’s a godless activity to imagine real futures. Those who dare attempt it deny both the God of the Armageddon, whose sword reaches from his mouth, and the God of the Invisible Hand, who gives us the absolute freedom to buy what we want to fit what we need. After several exhausting turns on this nauseating rollercoaster, however, I am not yet convinced that I am actually unable to use my own two feet, among the cloud of many witnesses—the disillusioned multitude who see the present two-faced “realism” as two faces of the same debilitating profane phantom—in new directions, right out of the amusement park. At the very least, if we allow ourselves, just for once, to second-guess the myopic resignation of the claim that there is no alternative, we may be able to open up the space in our imagination to conjure visions of different futures that are, against all odds, within our power to create.


Image source: Flickr, Alma Ayon (edited)

Everyday Neoliberalism // Mirowski

On theory.

On how I learned to stop worrying and love the market.

It is predominantly the story of an entrepreneurial self equipped with promiscuous notions of identity and selfhood, surrounded by simulacra of other such selves. […] Everyone strove to assume a persona that someone else would be willing to invest in, all in the name of personal improvement.

            Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (2014)

Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.

            Paul Ryan, Twitter (21 Feb 2017)

“Neoliberalism” was a word I had not heard until I entered graduate school, and then it was everywhere – in the theory texts I was reading, in the conversations between graduate students, and in the leftist discourse on Twitter, podcasts, and journalism that I became more attuned to over the last couple years. Often the word is wielded as a weapon of accusation: we can’t support a certain politician because he or she is a “neoliberal”; “neoliberalism” is killing education and healthcare; or it’s “neoliberal” oppression that I have to pay $25 to Graduate Studies so that they can host my thesis on their server, something they required in order for me to graduate despite the work already having been accomplished (this last one may be a little specific to my own case). It seems that many of the classic leftist/radical critiques of the political system have shifted in recent decades from decrying “capitalism” writ large to the perhaps more specific program termed “neoliberalism.” What is often unclear, based on how the term gets used, is whether this popular bugbear refers to some specific policy doctrine or some more general condition of culture or society. The answer, as I’ve come to understand, is both.

According to the tale Michel Foucault tells in his lectures from the late 70’s, American neoliberalism emerged as a reaction against the Keynesian economic reforms put forward by the Roosevelt Administration in the 30’s as a response to the Great Depression. Where Roosevelt’s programs focused on increasing government intervention in the economic crisis by developing social programs and aid, thereby increasing the federal deficit, neoliberalism called for laissez faire deregulation of the economy on the basis of the idea, from Adam Smith, that the “invisible hand” of the uninhibited market would work out its own solutions and create prosperity. The neoliberal program was codified into theory by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, particularly through the development of the Mont Pelerin Society, which was founded in the late 1940’s.

Foucault explains that, in the more radical version of neoliberalism that took hold in America, more and more functions of government would be handed over to the market. This can mean a couple things. On the one hand, conservative calls for a “smaller government” lead to hyper-privatizing of various public goods, such as healthcare, education, prisons, even the military. This form of neoliberal privatization of goods does not put these things back in the hands of the people but rather in the control of the mythical “market,” which really means the wealthy financiers and bankers with ties to the government who can turn public goods into objects for making a profit, usually to the injury of the general public and particularly of the poor.

On the other hand, the functions of government are handed to the market not through privatization but by using market standards of efficiency and growth as the guiding values behind governmental action. In this way, economic productivity is the primary value driving policy, rather than other potential metrics, such as the health and welfare of citizens or the humanistic empowerment of the public. This leads to the thinking that the cause of most political problems comes from too much interference in market fluctuation, thereby inhibiting the natural efficiency of the order of things. If you hear the phrase “market-based solutions” this is neoliberalism providing neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems caused by the neoliberal worship of the mythical rationality of the “Market.” For instance, the individual mandate to purchase private health insurance as a part of the Affordable Care Act was a neoliberal solution to a problem produced by neoliberalism’s refusal to make healthcare public and universal, as would be the case with a single-payer system. It kept healthcare private, thereby protecting the profiteering healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical industries, while making it slightly more accessible to just a few more people. When these sorts of strange market-based solutions inevitably prove themselves to be a less efficient way to address a problem, neoliberalism turns up again to say we should have just let the market do its work in the first place without undue guidance, giving us even more craven “solutions” like the slim and stupid, hyper-privatized American Health Care Act.

Philip Mirowksi, in his fantastic book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (seriously, I love this book), makes the case that neoliberalism was a particular sect of economic theory that gradually, against all odds and results, became the ruling ideology of the American system and continues to exert an absurd amount of influence over economic theory and governance in our country despite its many failures, particularly its big one of being entirely wrong about (as well as partly the cause of) the financial crisis of 2008. Where Foucault seems to say that neoliberalism is just the way things are now – that it’s the condition of our times, this general economization of all human things – Mirowski wants to make clear that it comes from a particular community of thought that has gained undue power through a particular series of events. Nevertheless, Mirowski also shows the many ways this sectarian economic theory has gone on to inform much of daily life and the self-perception of people today.

When we consider neoliberalism as a condition of contemporary culture and society, the simplest way to sum this up is to say that neoliberalism has instructed us to see ourselves as entrepreneurs of ourselves. Prominent social institutions – everything from the government itself to schools to churches and even to romantic relationships – are viewed as though they were businesses or financial investors. What we want is to be invested in, to put ourselves in situations that increase our own social capital and make us more successful, success being defined according to the principles of the market. This has a number of impacts on our daily life choices, especially those “big” ones: whether to go back to school, whether to start a business, to work on developing some personal skill or appearance, to gain “experience” whether or not it is justly compensated (unpaid internships for massive for-profit institutions are an evil unique to the neoliberal program for success).

By forcing us to constantly be on the move, developing our social capital portfolio, selling parts of ourselves, our time, and our lives to the various agencies or ideals handing out investments, neoliberal culture fragments our lives into the mesh of changing skills and start-ups we comprise. It takes from us a sense that our life belongs to us, because we hand over parts of our life to a market that might magically develop and improve it. Identity gains a monetary value, but not even a solid one. Rather, identity’s value shifts with the stock market, with the supply and demand of the job market, with the interests of those various investors we prostrate ourselves before. We are instructed to risk ourselves, not necessarily to trust the market but to enjoy the fact of its washing over us and absorbing all our attempts at making a life for ourselves. View each moment as a start-up, and don’t worry if you fail. Failure is a part of the rationality; just keep risking. The arrogant hypocrisy of such a culture is that, while the poor and the vulnerable are taught to enjoy the vulnerability that comes with risk, security exists for those who have greater control of the market. The housing crisis hurt a lot of people, but not the bankers who shorted the housing market. Doing away with public healthcare would hurt a lot of people, but not the people who profit from private insurance purchases or hiking drug prices, or the people who can already afford to buy health insurance because they’re the ones handing out the jobs and investments.

We see the success of neoliberalism’s hegemony of culture in our recourse to the sharing economy and the commercialization of organic materials. Things like Über or AirBnB are evidence that in neoliberal culture even private property does not belong entirely to us but belongs also to the market at large, to the flow of capital that courses through our lives and everyone else’s. If the market has left you in need of income to pay for the services no longer publicly provided for you, find a way to monetize more aspects of your life, such as your car or your house. Even more poignant are the ways we monetize our own bodies, submitting our blood plasma or wombs (as in surrogacy) to the market forces that are depriving us of what we need to live well. Moreover, what do we do when we learn of greater deprivations of life, human rights, or dignity at the hands of the market? We ask the market for help. So there’s slavery or labor violations in the coffee or berry farms? Buy fair trade. So animals are being treated terribly by meat producers? Buy free-range, antibiotic-free meat, or better yet, just buy more tofu and quinoa. So the patriarchy is depriving you of a just wage and equal access to a voice in political decision-making? Buy a “Nevertheless, she persisted” t-shirt.

As Mirowski shows in his incisive writing, neoliberalism makes us vulnerable while insidiously teaching us to enjoy our vulnerability. It guides us toward an erasure of the self while at the same time instructing us to be concerned only with ourselves, with our own little lives tossed in the sea of market dynamics. He writes, “The worse things get, you must not engage in rage, remonstration, or ‘stoicism,’ much less communal support; instead, the space spanned by your consciousness becomes the perimeter of the ‘economy,’ which is no longer about what you make, but consists exclusively of the stories you tell about yourself. Your vigilance must never waver from its focus upon the center of your own little universe.” We meditate on our little lives in order to find new stories about ourselves that open up a rational space for us to succeed according to the rationality of the uninhibited market, and we are told not to get in the way of ourselves. Public need is cast to the market, and we are taught to trust that everything happens for a reason, that God will take care of poverty and climate change, and that what we should be focused on is learning how to code or deregulating the kidney trade or shutting up and letting the businessmen do what they’re best at.


Image source: Flickr, Sam valadi (edited)