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<nettime> Re: Peace-For-War / Grid & Fork / Islamic perspective
Brian Holmes on Sun, 27 Aug 2006 18:32:33 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Re: Peace-For-War / Grid & Fork / Islamic perspective


Hello Alex, Felix, Ed, Benjamin, everyone,

I'm intrigued to the fullest by the responses to the paper I
posted (why else does one write?), and by the chance to dig deeper
into what's become a much more interesting subject. Alex has my
three cheers for bringing the regulation school ideas into our
amateur/activist/pop-theory debates. That body of work, along with
a book called The Second Industrial Divide, is the background to a
lot of the Italian autonomist theorizing that has been so great for
finally managing to actually include us (the possible agency of each
of us). The hope would be to go further, and to create concepts that
really fit the present. In my opinion, the Muslim world perspective
that Benjamin brings would make all the difference in that last
respect. I'm really glad about this discussion and would like to
continue it in a sustained way.

People in English-speaking lands may be unfamiliar with the regulation
school, though there was a good intro in David Harvey's book, The
Condition of Postmodernity, chapter 7. I'm gonna give my version
of what Alex already said about it. The regulationists treat
technological changes in the mode of production as a force of rupture
in history, then analyze how a new social form emerges from the
interactions between organizational innovations on the one hand (the
regime of accumulation), and governmental or societal intervention on
the other (the mode of regulation). After the steam-based industrial
revolution, it's generally thought that a first break occured in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the introduction of a
new technological paradigm (electric power and internal combustion
engines), leading to a new regime of accumulation (assembly-line mass
production under the organizational form of the vertically integrated,
multi-divisional corporation). In response to the crises of WWI, the
Russian Revolution and 1929, the period of the 1930s then becomes a
laboratory for the regulation of the new regime; and the model of the
welfare state finally emerges from Roosevelt's programs, then later
from Beveridge in the UK and related developments around Europe.

All this becomes fascinating to the extent that yet another
new technological paradigm (based on transistors, computing,
communications) began coming together in the 1970s, a "third
industrial revolution" that was gradually taken up and developed
as an answer to the persistent crisis and stagnation of the mass
production-national corporation-welfare state system. So you get what
Castells calls "informationalism" as a new mode of production, soon
matched by the emergence of the transnational network firm, organizing
just-in-time customized manufacturing around the world. This amounts
to a new regime of accumulation. Notice that it goes along with
globalization and financialization, bringing into the equation a whole
new problem of international relations that the regulationists don't
deal with very well, to my knowledge. Anyway, Alex is saying (and I
totally agree) that this new regime of accumulation, driven ahead by
computerization and a host of associated technological changes, comes
up against a socioeconomic crisis in the late 1990s, when the initial
attempt to regulate it by basically doing nothing (laissez-faire)
leads to market failures, social crises, wars and the abysmal state
of the present. Alex does take on the international dimension, and he
writes:

"a regulation crisis occurs when the laissez-faire responses to a new
technological paradigm show all its socioeconomic limits (not enough
effective demand, no social legitimacy) and leads to geopolitical
instability (open power rivalry with a concurrent crisis in world
hegemony). Regulation crises are... those of the interwar period
and the early 21st century. Again, my contention is that ideology
matters most in regulation crises, when rival institutional setups are
proposed and fiercely fought over."

The basic program that emerges from any regulationist-type analysis
is this: understand the social problems of the new regime of
accumulation, then propose new institutions. That's what the people
at the journals Futur Anterieur and then Multitudes have been talking
about in a more activist way for the last 15 years (not surprising,
the regulation school is mainly French). I dunno if there's been
such a focused discussion in Italy, or anywhere else. And maybe the
problem is, the autonomist crowd (and what Alex calls "the heretical
left") only really got moving again in the late 90s during the bubble
economy, so we somewhat simplified the picture of the new accumuation
regime (network utopianism) and we idealized the subjects who could
bring it into crisis (hackers, zapatistas, alterglobalizers, etc.).
With the result that we're only just now starting to face the
nitty-gritty.

The text on Peace-for-War tried to look directly at the US
neoconservative answer to the turn-of-the century crises, and to ask,
counter-intuitively, whether that violently statist answer does not
stem directly from the Clintonian internationalist neoliberal pattern
of governance that preceded it. In the language we are using now,
does the crisis of networked production not push the existing sets
of national institutions to try to regain stability by reasserting
sovereignty and reinventing a state-controlled war economy? In short:
Isn't this, for lack of anything better, an old-style Fordist response
to a wholly new regulation crisis of globalized flexible accumulation?

I think that to a large extent it is, so far anyway, in terms of
the concerted response led by the US and Britain - but to just say
that adds almost nothing. Identification of the actors of such a
response is important, but I agree with Alex that it's "reductive
to look at the present historical shift as merely a reshuffling in
the US composition of capital (from the dominance of technomerger
to petromilitary capitalism)." What matters is the bifurcation, how
all this is gonna go in the future. What matters is the way that
society reconfigures itself, the new rules that are put into place
to make life under capitalism safe, efficient, profitable, and just
egalitarian enough that it can keep on stumbling along. And what
also matters is the chance that we could still do better than that,
and make use of this crisis (which will inevitably get worse) in
order to spread new understandings of what we are actually doing as
societies in the wide world, and how we could do it differently.
What dismays me is the extent to which people on the Left hark back
to the dreams of the Clinton era (for the post-68ers, greens and so
on), to Roosevelt-Beveridge (for the old integrated Left), and to
Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin for the rest (with a little Che-Fidel thrown
in!). What you don't get is a concrete, sharable understanding of the
extremely complex contemporary division of labor, and of the ways
it is lived by billions of people, the kinds of solidarity it has
elicited and the functions of ideology that serve to sustain it. One
reason that the giddy 90's led to the gory 00's is that WE HAVE NO
ANALYSIS, AND THEREFORE NO REAL PROPOSALS, so we get the old-style
default solutions from the power-money people. And meanwhile, the
new solution emerges under cover of the mistaken old ones, without
the deep debate it really needs. Frankly, I'm afraid of what the new
regulation could ultimately become, under the cloaking and distorting
influence of what I call the party of war, oil and engineering.

When I talk about "steering," I am pointing to the different -
even very different - strategies that are brought into play in the
attempt to influence systemic change. Felix distinguishes between
structural dynamics (by which he seems to mean the way markets are
structured financially, and the results on the global division of
labor), interventionist power politics (carried out by states or their
proxies), and chaotic processes (resulting from a large number of
diverse actors all scrambling for influence). He observes how much the
recent technological changes have reinforced the third category, and
he writes: "The number of actors has grown that are powerful enough
to disturb the establishment of order without being powerful enough
to establish order themselves." This is a huge danger, one which is
becoming serious for millions if not billions of people; and this is
where a wider conceptual map of structural dynamics is needed, so as
to convince more actors to intervene exactly at the points where they
can contribute to establishing a different order. War and ecological
damage are starting to press for this kind of conceptual framework,
and so the time for proposing such maps is now. A look at Alex's Grid
& Fork timeline shows the kind of complexity that's entailed, but also
the necessary effort to reduce complexity, to find expressive forms
that can allow people to say, "Yes, I was there, I was affected by
that trend, and now I am shifting toward there, under the influence of
this new trend - which I want to help change, in order to fit into a
different configuration." This is the kind of "shared horizon" I was
talking about at one point: something rather complex, strategical, but
also inseparable from the more woolly order of a "world view."

What I like in the Grid & Fork timeline is the way that Alex positions
"Ideology and Political Mobilization" as exogenous, i.e. able to
change the trends, notably by influencing the forms of regulation. We
can also look for ourselves here, and the grid could become a kind
of modeling device if it were able, through some kind of hypertext
presentation, to project different futures on the basis of which
combinations of ideology and mobilizing project are chosen by whom.
But curiously, this outside position of ideology and political
mobilization, symmetrical to technological change as another force
of rupture in history, is opposed to both "Geopolitics and balance
of Power" and "World Finance and International Commerce," which
are considered weakly exogenous, i.e. capable of exerting some
transformative force, but perhaps not of achieving what Alex calls
a bifurcation. That's not so clear, Alex. Whay are these any more
outside of the structural trends than accumulation dynamics or
business and labor organization? Does it mean that they are only
partially shaped by something like ideology? Or that they fall only
partially under the influence of governmental and societal regulation?
Or both? It would be interesting to know how you see this, because it
pertains directly to the questions about the transnational division
of labor that I'm going to ask below. Generally, I think the grid
will only become useful with more argumentation about the categories
themselves, and then about their specific contents. So I am really
waiting to see the promised essay. The interesting thing would be
to argue out the shape of the grid collectively, and then use it to
orchestrate many existing references, many specially written original
texts, so that it becomes a kind of data-bank with hyper-linked key
words - eg. "Reverse Plaza Accord" or "flexworkers' syndicalism" -
leading into a kind of encyclopedia of the processes of social change.

Now I finally come to Benjamin's concerns. "Encyclopedia" combines
the Greek word for circle with the one for pedagogy - and it is the
centerpiece of the old Englightenment dream of transforming the
world collectively through knowledge. When I wrote about creating a
shared horizon, and that governments should be afraid of the "exact
science of our unbound dreams," it's true that I was inhabiting this
old Western model, where political motivation plus knowledge is
conceived as a strategy for changing the regulation of society. (In
the Peace-for-War text I was also trying to point out the importance
that has been taken on by a more recent knowledge of circular
pedagogy: cybernetics, which imho has largely become a science of
control. I wanted to suggest that this is an area that could use
some inervention, an area of societal regulation where both theory
and practice could be reconsidered.) Somewhere in this more-or-less
encyclopedic context, Benjamin raised a very interesting cautionary
warning against "any premature rush towards an imagined universalism."
He wrote this:

"I don't think politics can be separated from culture. The British
House of Commons, European anarchist working groups, and the
deliberations among the heads of clans in Upper Egypt all have
their distinctive cultures. Perhaps you are right, Brian, that
tomorrow's social movements need a new shared horizon as the basis for
international cooperation. But even if that's true, let it not be a
totalitarian horizon, one that attempts to cast all political life in
the same mould. Let it be one that allows individuals and groups to
move freely among political cultures and to mediate between them."

I found your first post extremely interesting, Benjamin, particularly
when you said that you didn't want to look for any "shared horizon"
until you had studied another culture deeply, and when you then said
you had chosen to learn Arabic and embarked on a course of study in
the Middle East. I would really be curious to know more about how
that's going and what you are learning. One thing that I understood,
more clearly than ever before, while writing the Peace-for-War
paper, was that the last great expansive phase of capitalism has
brought a huge population of new subjects into its orbit (what
Marxists call, with an ugly term, "proletarianization"). This has
greatly intensified the participation of Chinese, Indian and Middle
Eastern people in an economy which has meanwhile been cyberneticized
(subjected to real-time monitoring and patterning) and culturalized,
so that many of the new products and tasks concern words and images.
Not all, obviously (let's not get into the material-immaterial labor
debate again) - but what I'm saying is that the cybernation and
culturalization somehow exacerbates the mere fact of participation
in an economic circuit, particularly if you occupy a subordinate
position. And that intersects with the long-term trend you pointed
to in your last post: the disaffection of Middle Eastern populations
from the national formulas of technological modernization according
to some acclimated version of enlightenment principles, and the
return of Islam as a renewed system of regional solidarity, in the
face of continued and intensifying exploitation and oppression from
the developed capitalist countries. In that situation I can imagine
it might be enfuriating to confront, not only bosses and bombs, but
also cultural and ideological productions that directly challenge and
undermine the only functioning systems of solidarity one has.

I think you are simply stating a fact in your deeply researched and
considered post: "At the moment, it seems unlikely to me that any
secular movement can gain widespread popular support in the Middle
East. The ideologies that currently seem most likely to rebuild
this part of the world are Islamist ones. If you want to create a
new global political culture, I suggest thinking seriously about
the role Islam could play in that culture." I agree that this is
where almost all Leftist thought is still lacking; and I think it is
basically a failure to come to grips with all the consequences of
the worldwide division of labor under globalization. Alex, in a way,
at once addresses and glosses over the necessity of understanding
what might be called the really-existing systems of solidarity and
social cohesion in the world, by imagining, as a future bifurcation
of geopolitics, a "balanced multipolar" system as a kind of possible
solution to the present crisis:

"New Global Democracy under UN control, Liberal North America,
Federal Social Europe, Bolivarist Latin America, Asian Prosperity
Non-Aggression Pact, Pan-Islamic Union hegemonized by Iran, African
Union under South African leadership."

I think there are now real tendencies toward the autonomization
of regional systems, and I have written about them in my work on
Continental Drift. But the problem with a multipolar world is not
only that under the conditions of empire, Rome is no longer in Rome,
and the full-fledged world division of labor encourages people from
all continents to mix and resettle in endless streams of immigration
and transmigration. The problem is also that the last great attempt
to achieve new societal regulations by turning inward to regional
ensembles and currency blocs effectively happened in the 30's, and led
to a huge war. Only afterwards was the veil of "UN control" acheived,
along with the actual economic regulation of the world according to
a balance between the free-trade liberalism of Bretton Woods and
the notion of endogenous national development, hammered out in all
the limits that the GATT process did place on imports and foreign
ownership. But UN control is over; the postwar balance was only
effective because of the counterweight of the Soviet Union. We don't
want another world war to force everyone into erecting a new system
dictated basically by the victors. There is a great urgency to reshape
Leftist thinking so that it can contain, not just a definition of
other forms of solidarity and political mobilization, but above all a
capacity to dialogue with them and to see, at least partially, through
their eyes. It's great to hear that at least some efforts in this
direction are actually underway.

best to all, Brian




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