An epiphany was had today, and — as ever — it was because of something Robin said.
A frequently debated and ridiculed suggestion that circles the acceleratosphere is that capital has its own agency; that it is an autonomous agency. What is meant by this is very dependent on context.
The two examples that always come to mind for me — that is, the examples I’m most familiar with — are Fisher’s nods to it in The Weird and the Eerie, when he writes, in his introduction to the book’s second half:
Since the eerie turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected world capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory perception. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing any sort of affect.
I also think about Cyclonopedia, in which Reza invokes the petropolitics of oil, describing oil itself as an “inorganic demon” of geotrauma and latent capital. He writes that inorganic demons “are parasitic by nature, they themselves give rise to their xenotating existence, and generate their effects out of the human host, whether as an individual, an ethnicity, a society or an entire civilisation.” There are countless more examples as well. These two, in particular, evoke Fisher’s Gothic Materialism. Many others also call back to the Ccru’s meatpuppeteer Monarch Program and the geotraumatics of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (“Who does the Earth think it is?”), even to Nietzschean materialism and Spinozistic visions of nature.
My question when faced with these suggestions has generally always been: “What do we mean by agency here?” Agency is seemingly always tied to a conscious subject but the dictionary definition is perhaps more vague than you might expect, understood as an “action or intervention producing a particular effect”. No mention of a subject here. Philosophically speaking, it is much less slippery, of course. When we speak of agency we mean an actor’s capacity to act, and this definition is typically associated with ethics.
For Mark, Reza and others, the definition taken is something in between. The definition of actor, for instance, is taken broadly. For Mark, the eerie is a question of agency because, at the level of perception, we may be able to sense an action without any concrete knowledge of its source — Mark’s example is the “eerie cry”; a voice produced by an unknown body. That doesn’t mean there is no actor there but rather that knowledge of an actor may not necessarily precede the sensing of its actions.
The complaint of those who dislike this definition being applied to capital is that this serious sociopolitical concept is allowed to slip between economic realities and fictions — narratively speaking, that is — although, on the stock market, this quantum and speculative understanding is commonplace.
Such an argument showed up on Twitter recently, with @brightabyss sharing an article by Alain Badiou in which he apparently “doesn’t get taken in be the fantasy of Capital as autonomous agency” — in fact, it seems to me that he does. He refers to capitalism as an actor in the title.
Nevertheless, @brightabyss is clear to note that “Capitalist systems are steered by capitalists.” The main point to be made here, I think, is one clarified by @b8zs: suggesting that it is a case of the distinction between “Capital as autonomous agency vs. Capitalist systems steered by (individually responsible) capitalists” — we should really emphasise the point that capitalists are taken to be “individually responsible” for capitalism here.
I won’t recount the whole twitter debate here — although it was a good’un — but rather stick with this initial framing of the argument. Because the question of agency, as I see it, is not one of picking a side but rather acknowledging the flow between these two positions — one socially amorphous and the other reductively individualising.
The danger of framing discussions strictly along the lines of the latter is that it places all agency on the head of the individual which, in itself, is a typically neoliberal framing of debates around the likes of climate change or poverty — what Mark Fisher (via David Smail) once called “magical voluntarism”. Mark writes in his essay “Good For Nothing”:
For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.
What are the benefits of taking this and using it to punch upwards? We can do this for members of government, who are occupationally responsible for such things, sure, but to spread this thinly across society as a whole is no better a solution than the reading of “agency” supposedly being critiqued. It frames the problem laterally rather than hierarchically — reducing “capitalists” to as broad a moral demographic as “meat eaters”. It seems more like the learned behaviour of this ideology in and of itself, reflected back at the powers that be.
Without the inclusion of a critique of social structures, the analysis is as oppressive as it is impotent.
The theory-fictional approach to horrorising this omnipotent agency should not be taken “literally”, but that is not to say we cannot acknowledge the cultural importance of our fictions and the ways in which they raise consciousness around issues through narrative extrapolation. This was, in part, the point made by Robin through the analogical image of the jungle.
The anarchitecture of the jungle, as found in so many literary examples — Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ballard’s The Drowned World were ours — is representative of the disappearance of a familiar architecture that you know; an external infrastructure which helps to give shape to your sense of self through habit and language and semiotics.
Once this architecture — understood most generally as space-time but we can draw things into a sociopolitical infrastructure — is dissolved into the chaos of the jungle, you can only keep attributing your actions to a self for so long. Eventually, the familiar sociopolitical architecture of habit and understanding is no longer in place so that you cannot distinguish your agency from the agency of your own environment.
This is the entire plot of They Live!, isn’t it? The sunglasses make the jungle of libidinal engineering under capitalism suddenly legible. Once you become aware of the messages all around you, our understanding of individual agency is dissolved.
Or we can think about The Truman Show. Here the plot is inverted. Truman lives a dull existence until, one day, he comes to realise that no one around him has any agency of their own. They are all part of a literal architecture that structures his entire life. He is the only agentic subject in the Truman Show. Is this emphasising of his agency liberatory? No. Not at first. Whilst he remains trapped in the overbearing infrastructure, his desire to run headlong into the transcendental wall of his existence is portrayed as a kind of megalomaniac paranoia — even if we, the audience, know he is justified.
This fictive realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own is precisely the point made by countless theorists and fiction writers. The solution to this is not to double-down on one conspiratorial agency or our individuality, but rather hold both as influencing their other in tandem.
Badiou, in the article shared by @brightabyss, seems to say as much himself — and let us not ignore, at the very start, the way in which capitalism is framed as a “sole culprit”; an agentic actor. He writes:
Technological transhumanism remakes us as that hackneyed, inexhaustible theme of horror and science fiction movies: the creator overwhelmed by his creation, either enchanted by the coming (which has been awaited since Nietzsche) of the Ubermensch, or fearful of it, taking refuge in the skirt of Gaia, Mother Nature.
Let’s take things a step further. Humanity, for four or five millennia, has been organized by the triad of: private property, which concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of very slender oligarchies; the family, through which fortunes pass through inheritance; the state, which protects both property and family through armed force. It is this triad that defines the Neolithic age of our species, and we are still there — indeed now more than ever. Capitalism is the contemporary form of the Neolithic, and its enslavement of technologies by competition, profit, and the concentration of Capital only brings to their apex the monstrous inequalities, social absurdities, warlike massacres and deleterious ideologies which have always accompanied the deployment of new technologies under the historical reign of class hierarchy.
The suggestion here seems to be that, whilst we may imagine ourselves being overcome by our own creations, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which this has already occurred. But this is precisely the role of so many theory-fictional enterprises: the extrapolation of the situations we are already currently in.
Why focus on capital? Why not? It is inseparable from any other multiplicitous organising system. Whatever the target of our ire, the question of agency remains central.
I’ll end with my favourite (early) passage from Ballard’s The Drowned World:
This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
The question of whether or not capital has agency – or something like agency – is also intimately connected to the question of ‘what is capital?’. In the standard economic account capital denotes wealth in its various guises – physical assets, financial assets, factors of production, etc, measured and expressed through monetary value. If we go with this understanding of capital, then the question “does capital have agency” comes to appear like a silly one: one owns capital in the form of assets or whatever, thus making one a capitalist. One then is able to move one’s assets about, selling them off, buy new ones and so on, often with certain strategic elements in mind (bringing in things like Austrian theories of time preference). It makes sense why the various orthodox schools of economics would flock to this basic understanding, since it cedes power to the capitalist and above all emphasizes the role of the individual commanding the power at their disposal.
When the left picks up this understanding, the result is predictable: the problem becomes less structural, and can be solved simply by getting rid of the ‘bad people doing bad things’. The gamut of solutions from egalitarian liberalism to conscious capitalism to replacing the capitalists with the state – or in other cases, the workers themselves – stems fundamentally from this problem. Which of course is the problem you raise here, brilliantly… I was hoping to write something up on the intersection of the agency question with magical voluntarism but you beat me to it! Relatedly, I’m coming to realize more and more what that the critique of agency by U/Acc was, at least for me, a critique of voluntarism. This bit from Fisher’s critique of Bakker is brilliant in spelling that out:
>Agency does not entail voluntarism. On the contrary, voluntarism is likely to impede agency by obfuscating the causal factors which prevent entities from acting, or which can enable them to act more effectively. Marxism has always known this – what does the famous claim that men make history but not in conditions of their own making mean if not that agency is not the same as the assertion of will? In truth, leftist voluntarism involved a backsliding from the model of agency which Marx had proposed. This Marxian account of agency strikingly resonates with Catherine Malabou’s account of plasticity, which, as Nick Srnicek pointed out in his discussion of Neuropath, offers rich resources for rethinking agency in the light of neuroscientific discoveries. “‘What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity,” Malabou claims. “In ordinary speech [plasticity] designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. … Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. … But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.”
Which delivers us to your question:
>Why focus on capital?
Contra BA in the thread, I don’t think that capital is just one system amongst many. If we take capital in the narrow sense addressed above them yes, it is an element, ultimately under human control but perhaps mystified (or perhaps double-mystified in the case of ideologues: capital under human control -> capital as self-moving substance -> actually under human control after all), that exists in conjunction with other interacting systems. But turning the Marxian account of capital is essential, since it annihilates this individualist supposition and reveals how capital does have an agency in the sense that you have defined here: ability to act as a causal force. Capital isn’t simply owned assets, or means of production, or money (if it was reducible to one of these things, we could theoretical extend capital infinitely into the past, a nonsensical proposition), but something other than them that is nonetheless identifiable to them in this historical moment. It allows convertability between them, empowers their circulation; basically, it moves beneath them, hence the “general formula for capital” being the M-C-M’ loop in itself, and not a distinct moment in it.
The “realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own” sums it up perfectly: far from being a something moved about by the individual capitalist, capital imparts a unique mode of social mediation, which deposits itself, as Deleuze and Guattari might say, in every pore of society. As the movement of value, it may in distinct moments ultimately derive from labor, but read as a historical flow it captures because it has imposed the value-form on it, making labor into a commodity. Totalizing? Yes, but that’s something that must be taken seriously and not shrugged off. Limits our range of options? Yah. But it also points to the place where politics is capable of being reborn: not in some unmolested pocket free of capitalist relations, or in some mythologized past, but in the abstract possibility of the future. And it illustrates the limit of capital’s domination: in the value-form itself.
Hot damn fella, you sure know how to blog.. I’ll try to respond to all this ASAP.
Looking forward to it!
Interesting post. And I liked edmundberger’s comment above. There is another approach to a topic like this. One can look more to fields such as the social sciences, philology, and consciousness studies. In particular, this would include those taking a larger historical, cultural, and linguistic perspective: Marshall McLuhan, Julian Jaynes, Iain McGilchrist, etc.
From this viewpoint, one might shorten the historical extent of Badiou’s claim of the propertied self (see Brian McVeigh). Instead of going back four or five millennia, maybe this identity is a much more recent social construction beginning around 3 millennia ago or maybe slightly less, only fully forming in the Axial Age. This propertied self is not only about owning something externally but also including the concept of owning the self. It’s a specific way of speaking that did not exist for most of human history. Without the propertied self, there was no individuality as such, and hence no egoic consciousness as we experience it.
Instead, the earliest sense of human identity appears to have been a self that was bundled, porous, fluid, and extended. This bundle theory of mind was described by David Human and Friedrich Nietzsche, likely as they learned of it from missionaries who brought back Buddhist texts. But this other psychology is also commonly found in the anthropological literature. The perception of the world being full of diverse agencies, including communal agency has been the norm for most societies until relatively recent history. It still lingered even in the Western world until the modern era. One can see the traces of the old views of agency such as with the legal tradition of the deodand
A more extensive perception of agency isn’t a mere fiction. Or rather it’s certainly not more of a fiction than individuality, especially hyper-individuality. This greater sense of identity that is hard for us modern Westerners to grasp (with our WEIRD bias) has felt perfectly normal, so it seems, to most humans in the past. One could argue that it touches upon something fundamentally true within the human psyche. But if this is the case, it will require radical imagination for us to re-enter this psychological worldview that we’ve lost contact with. That is what capitalist realism prevents us from doing, in shutting down radical imagination and making its claims upon both objective reality and psychological reality.
This week I’ve been reading the long introductory essay to Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. He is considered the fonder of Soviet psychology. He had many influential ideas, such as the zone of proximal development. He considered humans to be fundamentally social and that individuality is only a later development. Inner speech is the internalization of earlier ways of relating, communicating, and problem-solving. I haven’t gotten very far in the book yet, but looking at it today made me think of this post. That particular book isn’t about agency. Still, one can see how it would relate to agency.
It resonates with Julian Jaynes theory that consciousness as inner space was a metaphor-based social construct having emerged out of the wreckage of the bicameral mind’s voice-hearing. On a side note, Jaynes once said he didn’t know what people meant when they spoke of agency. The implication probably was that he doubted people actually knew what they were talking about, in that most human behavior operates without consciousness. If as supposed agents we are identified with consciousness, then who or what is it that controls almost all of our actions as we typically go through our lives oblivious?
Why is having faith in an egoic demiurge possessing and ruling our mind more reasonable than other possibilities? Consciousness studies is quite unsettling, which is why most people ignore such issues. If all that agency means is an effective cause, then might it just be turtles all the way down with one cause being the effect of yet another cause (or web of causes, as in dependent co-arising). In that case, isn’t agency a mystification no matter with what one wants to identify it? If our purpose is to seek change, we are going to need to grapple with some radically disturbing issues that challenges the folk psychology that filters into so much of conventional thought, even among many otherwise brilliant thinkers.