Coterminus and Continuous Capitalism (Part 1)

More comments-worthy-of-posts from Ed Berger at the end of last year, this time on my post “Reweirding Arcadia“. A lot has spun out from that post over the Christmas period so expect more offshoots soon.

Drawing attention to the previous discussion on “folk frivolity” and the festival as a “diffuse signifier” for a hidden “proletarian libidinal economy”, Ed added:

I’m wondering how this works with the libidinal economy of Lyotard that Mark cherished so much, the one in which the organic body falls away and the possibilities are primed for the “new Earth for a ‘people that do not yet exist’”, to quote the classic Telecommunism post on K-punk.

Should we read a tension into these two libidinal economies, or did Mark regard the thing identified by Lyotard — ‘they loved their dissolution’ — as something continuous with this tendency that expressed itself in proto-proletarian (and later proletarian) folk frivolity’?

The latter seems to me like a very provocative suggestion, given the way you highlight the nomadic qualities of British ‘heritage’ (a posthumous striation?), and that it might cast these things are harbingers of what a post-capitalist world may look like, given that capital must suppress these things as much as they need them.

A short while later, Ed left a further comment:

Been thinking about this some more. It’s funny how Marx also, in the post-Das Kapital phase, near the end of his life, turned towards peasant and indigenous traditions and sources outside the traditional Western experience in pursuit of what communism might look like —

Ed added the following quote from “Karl Marx and the Iroquois“, an essay by Franklin Rosemont:

The poetic spirit, in fact, makes its presence felt more than once in these Notebooks. Auspiciously, in this compendium of ethnological evidence, Marx duly noted Morgan’s insistence on the historical importance of “imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind.” From cover to cover of these Notebooks we see how Marx’s encounter with “primitive cultures” stimulated his own imagination, and we begin to realize that there is much more here than Engels divulged.

On page after page Marx highlights passages wildly remote from what are usually regarded as the “standard themes” of his work. Thus we find him invoking the bell-shaped houses of the coastal tribes of Venezuela; the manufacture of Iroquois belts “using fine twine made of filaments of elm and basswood bark,” “the Peruvian legend of Manco Capac and Mama Oello, children of the sun”; burial customs of the Tuscarora; the Shawnee belief in metempsychosis; “unwritten literature of myths, legends and traditions”; the “incipient sciences” of the village Indians of the Southwest; the Popul Vuh, sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya; the use of porcupine quills in ornamentation; Indian games and “dancing (as a) form of worship.”

This post (and perhaps a few others to follow) will attempt to think about and address some of these points raised wonderfully by Ed, and it is also an excuse for me to finish transcribing Mark Fisher’s final lecture before his death, “Libidinal Marxism”, which offers a really great reading of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy in light of all of this.

What is apparent from this reading of Marx’s later notebooks — a reading which gives a new resonance to many of the cultural interventions intended to be enacted through the 1960s and ’70s by the likes of Marcuse and others — is of the increased importance of a pre-capitalism to a post-capitalism. However, whilst this may have been a starting point for Marx himself, picked up by many others, it is not quite so simple as this.

In his final Postcapitalist Desire lecture before his death, Mark would highlight Lyotard’s text precisely as a critique — or perhaps more nuanced reading — of this position. In fact, related to Marx’s interest in primitive societies, Mark would introduce Lyotard’s text as a counterargument to that which was put forwards by Jean Baudrillard in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death, for instance. Mark explains:

Baudrillard is a kind of primitivist. […] In some ways you could say Baudrillard is more of a Marxist than Lyotard because he retains the idea of a critique of equivalence — so the idea is that, with Marx, what happens in capitalism is that everything is made equivalent. This is what capital is, right? […] x physical thing here equals a virtual quantity of capital. This is what it is to inject things into a capitalist system — and Baudrillard opposes this to what he calls symbolic exchange.

Symbolic exchange — as Lyotard professes here — partly comes from Mauss’s theory of gift-exchange […] The idea of gift exchange, which was a study of certain practices of so-called primitive societies — practices of potlatch […] Basically it’s a form of ritualistic gift-giving often with a latent, or not so latent, aggression to it, where you escalate and escalate the gifts that are given, sometimes to the point where you burn down the whole village as a “top that!”

With gift-exchange there is no equivalent. There is no law of equivalence. If I give you something and you respond with something else, what is the metric that would make those things equivalent? There isn’t anything. This is what Baudrillard says. This is the logic of the gift. It has nothing to do with any kind of law of equivalence. This is then a part of primitive societies that can be completely contrasted with capitalism.

It’s funny to think of this now because the mundane experience of this economic imposition of equivalence such as this is fresh in my mind, having just returned from the annual whip around the relatives to do some seasonal gift-giving over Christmas.

My girlfriend is a stickler for wanting to match everyone’s Christmas gifts. To be given a gift without having given one in return is the worst seasonal embarrassment. But, furthermore, everything must be equivalent and simultaneous. It’s incredibly stressful. Prediction is key and, on occasional, mind-reading is a must.

What we find here in this psychic imposition of equivalence is the very seed of capitalist realism. If, as Mark suggests, the law of equivalence is essentially the governing law of capitalism, it is a law that goes all the way down, from interpersonal relations to the very nature of reality. No wonder the end of capitalism is seen as equivalent to the end of the world.

But what this focus on equivalence and non-equivalence misses out is the continuity of the flows that constitute these desires in themselves. Because, of course, we still give gifts and whilst the socially polite thing to do — in a lot of the West anyway — might be to equal a gift, it would be an overreach to say this has been captured completely. But what we see having happened is that this desire to give has nonetheless been infiltrated by capitalism’s restrictive logics. The logic of the gift has not been lost but it has been coopted on a large scale.

It must be noted that this cooption is not just a simple absorption, however. As Ed points out, capital is afflicted with the unfortunate necessity of having to suppress the very things that keep it alive. It treads a fine line, coopting the flows that constantly threaten to burst its barriers. It must play chicken with desire which both constitutes and threatens its very nature.

The main insight of this relationship as it is described by Lyotard — and gift-giving remains a good example of its appearances — is that, as Mark continues, in stark contrast with Baudrillard and the likes of Marcel Mauss:

Lyotard really wants to reject any attempt to find an outside to capitalism… Either everything is primitive or nothing is primitive. Either capitalism is itself primitive… There’s no subversive region. There is nothing beyond the purview of capital.

I think what is most important in Lyotard’s argument here, for Mark, and likewise what Arcadia does a good job of trying to poetically articulate, is that the relationship of this sort of symbolic economy to capitalism is continuous rather than (co)terminus.

These energetic flows have preceded capitalism, flowing within and through it, and they will likely continue after it as well. And we know this, at least subconsciously. We discussed this last time but also we represent it to ourselves everywhere and all the time also.

Just as Mark went on to write about the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism — well, how many apocalypses have you witnessed on screen that end or are succeeded by a party? The anarchic energy of post-apocalyptic evil-doers is often intrinsically libidinal. To my mind, I’m thinking of the enormous rave in one of The Matrix sequels or the entirety of the Mad Max universe, itself Ballardian in nature as Simon Sellars has pointed out recently.

This is something captured in Lyotard’s most famous extract from Libidinal Economy. Lyotard writes:

But, you will say, it gives rise to power and domination, to exploitation and even extermination. Quite true; but also to masochism; but the strange bodily arrangement of the skilled worker with his job and his machine, which is so often reminiscent of the dispositif of hysteria, can also produce the extermination of a population: look at the English proletariat, at what capital, that is to say their labour, has done to their body. You will tell me, however that it was that or die. But it is always that or die, this is the law of libidinal economy, no, not the law: this is its provisional, very provisional, definition in the form of the cry, of intensities of desire; ‘that or die’, i.e. that and dying from it, death always in it, as its internal bark, its thin nut’s skin, not yet as its price, on the contrary as that which renders it unpayable. And perhaps you believe that ‘that or die’ is an alternative?! And that if they choose that, if they become the slave of the machine, the machine of the machine, fucker fucked by it, eight hours, twelve hours, a day, year after year, it is because they are forced into it, constrained, because they cling to life? Death is not an alternative to it, it is a part of it, it attests to the fact there is jouissance in it, the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they — hang on tight and spit on me — enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.

What is key about this passage is the nihilism that Lyotard attaches to the proletariat — their thirst for annihilation — which is perhaps to suggest that their masochistic self-abuse, which itself functions as lubricant for the gears in the machine of the industrialised State, is a sort of imposed bait-and-switch for the virile masochism of the folk festival.

Just as Bataille highlights sacrifice as the pinnacle of the festival, what is this industrialised labour but also a form of self-sacrifice, one that is likewise continuous and notably not coterminus? No instance comes to mind of Bataille equating sacrifice with an “end”, as such. It is a libidinal peak, a frivolous limit, but not one that cannot be crossed or transformed into something new. Indeed, he argues that that is precisely what has occurred. It is Bataille’s argument across his oeuvre that we, as a civilisation, exceeded the desire to sacrifice women and children to our godheads. In the end, we had to sacrifice God itself.

Where Lyotard’s passage becomes so controversial, in light of all this, is that this sacrificial nature is ascribed to the working classes far more explicitly than in Bataille’s various writings. Many have read Lyotard’s book as romanticising or championing the very nature of oppression, sublimating the trauma into self-abused, but read via Bataille we instead see nothing but an expression of a revolutionary spirit resisting its containment in the only way it knows how.

Mark frames the problematic in his lecture as follows:

Is it the case simply that capitalism is imposed on the peasant body as something wholly unpleasant or is it something which engenders its own desire? Or, as [Lyotard] puts it here, forms of endurance? And he wants to say: no, it does! There are these forms of endurance intrinsic to capitalism. The proletariat, then, does not simply — the proletariat is not the same as the peasantry here. The proletariat — the industrial proletariat — is something produced in this enjoyment — in this enjoyment of the dissolution of the old world.

So what’s next? Capital itself? What does that even mean? The dissolution of the law of equivalence?

That would be Baudrillard’s view perhaps. For Lyotard, what is important to note is that this is not the end of the flows of dissolution in themselves. Capitalism did not come from nowhere. It finds its source in these flows and our desires but the end of capitalism is not the end of what gave birth to it.

Such is the U/ACC view of acceleration. These energies are currently in a state of capture but they are continuous.

This capture has transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. So what is the next? Who are the people-to-come?

To be continued…

1 Comment

  1. I might have mentioned this before, but I have a hard time not seeing in Deleuze’s remarks in the opening of D&R as being an allusion to the question of the gift and the general equivalence that makes capital possible (and thus provides, right at the outset, a potential political read of this philosophy that he goes on to explicate, which as far as I can tell is not something that has been addressed before; the ‘political Deleuze’ seems to be mostly left on the backburner until his work with Guattari). Anyways, it appears where he contrasts generality with repetition, and writes that “generality expresses a point of view according to which one term may be exchanged or substituted for another”. Exchange is key, but so is what he calls the “quantitative order of equivalences” that generality maintains (alongside the “qualitative order of resemblances”). This plays right into Marx’s theory of money and Mark’s unpacking of Lyotard above: money, which is the form of value, is a commodity that has a special status that sets it apart from all other commodities, in that serves as the abstract equivalent, allowing the exchange of particular quantities.

    Deleuze then proceeds to describe the “economic difference” (!) between generality and repetition:

    Repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities. Reflections, echoes, doubles and souls do not belong to the domain of resemblance or equivalence; and it is no more possible to exchange one’s soul than it is to substitute real twins for one
    another. If exchange is the criterion of generality, theft and gift are those of repetition. There is, therefore, an economic difference between the two.

    But in AO, these terms appear again in a slightly different guise that brings it into alignment with what you’re saying above. In the complicated anthropological passages in the “Savages, Barbarians, and Civilized Men” chapter, D&G suggest that already in the gift economies there is a dynamism floating under the surface that is dragging it towards the general equivalent, which is to say, towards capitalism. In order to be exchanged as gift, the object has to have some sort of social value, which arises from the inscription (overcoding), and as it enters into the circulation of the gift economies, it becomes posed to its antithesis, the counter-gift, so on and so forth. The general equivalence absolutely decodes these earlier overcodes, but still makes use of it/them via recoding itself and the axiomatic system – everything turns as you describe above.

    I’ve barely delved into the scholarship around Marx’s late notebooks, but my feeling is that his focus on so-called ‘primitive societies’ is less about looking to recreate directly their relations or important their distinct social formations into the future; communism still appears as the tearing away of the prejudices and irrationalities of the past and all that good stuff, though clearly it doesn’t do away with the sense of ecstasy. A little bit of a riff here, but it seems that one of the things that allowed this particular formations is the sense of surplus or excess that characterized life prior to capitalist privatization… the argument that Marx follows when he describes communism as rupturing from capitalism is that capital develops productive forces, and this development lays the groundwork for the stage-to-come. Two forms of excess are engendered: time and productive output. The first of these is really a specter (we’re haunted by a world in which time could be free, but it’s dominated at every turn), but the second is part of the motor of capitalist crisis, which in turns allows the system to expand itself. Communism would convert the overproduction of capitalism into the abundance of Red Plenty. So in a sort of time-tangled format, perhaps the turn towards pre-capitalist societies is to try and think through what life might be like in the conditions of liberated free time and the real elimination of (imposed) scarcity? The big difference being that the former is chained to the organic body of the earth, whereas the latter is freed via the synthetic flux of industrialization?

    Side note, I re-read this after your post, lots of good food for thought and little resonances:

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