The myth of metaphysical enclosure: A second response to Adam Arvidsson
My initial response to Adam Arvidsson’s excellent and provocative essay entitled ‘The Potential of Consumer Publics,’ was met by the author with a thoughtful response in which he provides, I think in very helpful ways, some clarification about the politico-ideological underpinnings of his notions of the productive consumer public and the reputation (or ethical) economy (see also Arvidsson, 2008; Arvidsson, 2009). As his defense against my charges illustrates, Arvidsson represents a position that, with Žižek, we could call ‘Fukuyamaist’. This position holds that the collapse of the Communist Bloc put an end to the competition between ideological and economic systems, with the result that
liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally found formula of the best possible society; all one can do is to render it more just, tolerant and so on. The simple but pertinent question arises here: if liberal-democratic capitalism is, if not the best, then the least bad form of society, why should we not simply resign ourselves to it in a mature way, even accept it wholeheartedly? (Žizek, 2009: 52)
Is this not exactly the question Arvidsson is posing in his response? Is he not asking us to accept the reality of neoliberal capitalism and get on with it? At his Fukuyamaist best, Arvidsson suggests that to keep criticizing what cannot be changed constitutes little more than the immature trolling of utopian dreamers and tenured radicals, especially when unaccompanied by a clear description of the solution to the problem. In principle, there are two main charges leveled by Arvidsson against my critique of his argument.
First, he rejects my critique for being naïve and utopian, but he does so not because I suggest that his productive consumer publics reproduce neoliberal capitalist logic. On the contrary, Arvidsson himself seems to agree with my assessment that his concepts of reputation economy and productive consumer publics are at the same time both product and producer of communicative capitalism. What he objects to is the anti-capitalist position from which I state my critique, because, as already mentioned above, Arvidsson has concluded that the rule of capitalism cannot be changed; it is, to put it in Žižek’s terms, the real of our lives, a real so powerful that, as Fredric Jameson (2003: 73) puts it, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism’.
Second, Arvidsson faults my response for articulating a critique without at the same time providing my own constructive vision. In other words, criticizing his neoliberal fantasies is fine as long as it is constructive, which for him means accepting his Fukuyamaist position and thus focusing one’s criticism on how to make capitalism more humane and tolerable. After having been too utopian in my anti-capitalist critique, here I am not utopian enough for Arvidsson because I refuse to develop a vision of a more just, democratic, tolerant and environmentally sustainable capitalism.
Before I formulate a short response to these two charges, I would like to emphasize that as far as the assessment of Arvidsson’s original argument is concerned, we actually do not have a substantial disagreement. My main claim has been that in his essay Arvidsson is advancing a conservative notion of social change that celebrates the global subsumption of digital labour as some kind of postmodern capitalist communism; an argument and vision that very much recalls Hardt & Negri’s (2004) notion of the multitude as the new positive form of economic and social productivity and new radical political subjectivities. For Negri (2008), value forms created by autonomous digital collaboration and co-creation by the multitude – or as Arvidsson puts it, ‘by putting common resources to work in processes that unfold beyond the direct control of markets and hierarchies’ – are already just one small step removed from communism. No matter that the capitalists appropriate autonomous labour, commodify all forms of life and make the rules of the new productive game. Capitalists here are mere parasites leeching off the labour of the multitude and they can, at any moment, be cut off from the various forms of collaboration and common consumptive production, bringing about something we could ‘call commonism if we want, or simply an “informational mode of production” to use a less loaded term’.
As I wrote in my earlier response, I see many problems with this theory of informational communism outside markets and hierarchies, not least being that the most convincing examples presented by Arvidsson of such an informal mode of production rely for their continuous existence and viability on markets and hierarchies. But again, the main point here is not that I believe Arvidsson’s theory of the productive consumer public is inconsistent and in the final analysis misguided and naïve. The main point I was trying to make in my initial response was that despite all his anti-capitalist language, Arvidsson is in actuality presenting a conservative vision of social change that takes for granted the continuation of neoliberal capitalism, albeit a version of neoliberal capitalism that over time somehow learns to accommodate and tolerate other forms of economic production and political subjectivities. In short, a neoliberalism with a human face (which is good enough for Arvidsson to move ‘beyond neoliberalism’, as if just saying it will make it so). And it turns out that Arvidsson, in his reply, admitted that much. Along similar lines, Arvidsson repeatedly states his disappointment about my refusal to
recognize that notions like peer-to-peer production, high-tech gift economies and the like have the power to mobilize the energies of the subjects that are most likely to become the pioneers of a new political vision – today’s version of the skilled workers that have taken the lead in most modern political movements. Even though the social theory that they produce might be shallow and imperfect… we cannot simply dismiss these versions as mere ideologies to be replaced by our theoretically more refined ideologies.
I can assure you that I have no difficulty recognizing the real existence of the self-branding, entrepreneurial competitor who, via skilled knowledge work, hopes to change the world. There are plenty of them in my classroom. And I am not concerned about the depth and perfection of the social theories driving their visions for the future. What I am concerned about are the processes that constitute these students as neoliberal subjectivities in the first place and subsequently limit their desire for a better world – a desire that, of course, we should encourage and not dismiss a priori – to variations on neoliberal capitalism (variously called social entrepreneurism, corporate social responsibility, conscious capitalism and so on).
Thus, my point was not at all to moralize about the effects of communicative capitalism but to decry two things: first, that Arvidsson elevates this neoliberal subject to be the legitimate historical subject of radical transformation, and second, that Arvidsson seems to believe that the radical transformation ushered in by this subject is one we should desire. It is one thing to acknowledge the current hegemony of neoliberal governmentality. I have no problem with that. That neoliberalism is a radical social force is plain for all to see. It is something different entirely, however, to suggest, as Arvidsson appears to, that the competitive, self-branding and entrepreneurial subject is the only possible subject we can imagine today – that this subject should be allowed to create the future world. Here, we have to become normative and demand alternatives.
Now that we know that Arvidsson and I in fact agree on the ideological position espoused by his theory of a productive consumer publics and the accompanying notion of the reputation economy, what about his two charges against me mentioned above? The first accusation was that my criticism of his desire to develop a theory of the social within neoliberal capitalism rather than against it was naïve and outdated. Arvidsson seems to believe that the task of a social scientist today is to be realistic, meaning to take as immutably real the fact of capitalism. There are a couple of points I would like to make about this intellectual position.
First, it is interesting to see in Arvidsson’s excitement for the new digital public that for him everything seems possible with the Internet: the use of common resources, the formation of new public spaces and entirely new civil societies, collective forms of production across vast and complex networks of communication, truly democratic decision-making, individual empowerment, brand-building without a marketer in control, even the end of private property! And yet one thing seems impossible: the end of neoliberal capitalism. When it comes to that, we need to be ‘realistic’.
Second, how naïve is my critique of capitalism really? To be sure, it certainly is not so naïve as to conjure up as our way forward the idea of 20th century communism. This idea of communism, in its state socialist form, has been soundly discredited and should be abandoned. But should we therefore give up our aspirations for a world where all social relations are not structured by capital and through commodities? Besides, there is something truly peculiar going on these days. As Indian social philosopher Saroj Giri (2010) points out, media today are full of anti-capitalist rants almost to a point where one could be forgiven for thinking that capitalism is the devil on its last legs. Stories about corrupt bankers, polluting companies, abusive labor conditions in Chinese factories and the diamond mines of Africa, corporate bribery of government officials in India and Nigeria and so on abound even in well-known bastions of capitalist propaganda such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Capitalism’s greatest cheerleaders, the Harvard Business Review and its publishing arm HBSP, have also been busy churning out articles and books by business scholars and consultants replete with surprisingly frank scolding of the stewards of global capitalism for being greedy and selfish, and of companies for being polluting, unfair, short-sighted, cheating and scheming and, most importantly, for putting the capitalist system at risk of imminent collapse (see e.g. Barton, 2011; Bower et al., 2011; Haque, 2011).
The important point I would like to make at this juncture is that with my critique of contemporary capitalism, I find myself firmly placed at the centre of contemporary business discourse, not at its margins, as Arvidsson seems to believe. If there is one position today that should be characterized as naïve and utopian, it is the one that posits that the same system that brought us to the point we are at today (rapidly rising inequality and economic apartheid, rampant de-politization, environmental catastrophe and so on) can somehow fix with its left hand what its right hand destroyed. On what basis, other than utopian faith, can one make such a claim?
Obviously, Arvidsson is not the only one suggesting that capitalism can be fixed in spite of itself. It is a popular position among people across a wide political spectrum, from right-wing libertarians to several so-called leftist groups and their hopes for saving what remains of the social-democratic welfare state. What all of these supporters of capitalism – including Arvidsson – fail to explain to the rest of us is how a system designed to grow, create many more losers than winners, exploit natural resources and pollute the environment will suddenly and miraculously contain itself and create collectively shared resources, many more winners than losers and environmental health. Let’s remember that Arvidsson started his rejoinder with a bit of Hegel, but when it comes to assessing the potential of capitalism as a totality, Hegel conveniently no longer features. But hasn’t Žižek in particular made the point that if we are to really understand capitalism with Hegel we cannot separate the positive from its negations. The negative – Foxconn, ongoing civil war in the Congo, rising unemployment and recurring economic crises and so on – cannot be understood as aberrations of the totality of capitalism but as its constitutive parts. Therefore, anyone proposing to fix capitalism from within needs to answer the question of what kind of negativity he or she is willing to accept as part of the new and improved capitalism (how much pollution is OK, how much unemployment is OK, how much war is OK, etc.). I think it is not only justified, but today more important than ever, to ask, who here between the two of us is the radical utopian?
The second charge against my initial response was that all that criticizing is all well and good but, unless it is combined with a solution, such criticism is not constructive. A reactionary response to criticism that aims at foreclosing critical discourse, such a demand for constructiveness and practical solutions, should be rejected unconditionally. First, on moral grounds, why should it be acceptable for someone who posits as a ‘solution’ a utopian fantasy (hence no solution at all) to demand from his or her detractors a solution? Second, we should reject the notion that criticism should always be constructive on theoretical grounds. Constructivist criticism is a kind of criticism that accepts the coordinates of the real within which the criticized object resides. If criticism rejects the assumptions on which the critiqued rests, or put differently, if criticism rejects as unacceptable the entire symbolic universe that make possible the criticized object, then it cannot be called constructive.
Often, then, constructive criticism becomes meaningless criticism. For example, how would one provide constructive criticism of Hitler’s ideological and political project? Such a task would make little sense because it would cast a priori Hitler’s Third Reich as a reasonable entity (see Horkheimer, 2004). Similarly, when Arvidsson calls for us to start behaving like reasonable and constructive people, what he means is that we should accept the coordinates of his argument – for example, that neoliberal capitalism has to be accepted as a reality and by doing so we can move beyond it – as a reasonable entity. Trying to change these coordinates becomes unreasonable and unconstructive.
Here again we should remember Žižek’s advice to the Wall Street occupiers not to speak to all those agents of reason, those pragmatists, from Clinton to Obama to Goldman Sachs. At such moments of resistance and defiance, silence becomes the most radical act against pragmatic politics, the kind of politics that wants to resolve the problem step by step in a realistic way, rather than addressing it at its roots (see Žižek, 2008). Because what would Arvidsson’s response be to anything outside the existing coordinates he sees structuring the domain of social and economic relations? Perhaps, then, this is not the time to articulate solutions when we are still struggling to ask the right questions. This sentiment is expressed perfectly by a joke Žižek told at Occupy Wall Street,
In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false’. After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing unavailable is red ink’.
The point of the joke is that without the red ink, we lack the very language to articulate our reality. Paraphrasing Žižek, what this lack of red ink means is that all the main terms we use to designate the present situation – ‘productive consumer publics’, ‘informal economy and freedom’, ‘common resources’, etc. – are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. Before we offer solutions, we need the red ink.
 Although I do think that (see below).