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Re: <nettime> January 23, Trump Question
sebastian on Fri, 27 Jan 2017 16:31:31 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> January 23, Trump Question


> But what really struck me in your email was--again--the obsession on
> this list and elsewhere with the idea that all of this signals the
> death of capitalism.
> 
> This is hogwash. It's magical thinking.
> 
> Just based on the march I attended in New York for four hours on
> Saturday: 99% of those people were not protesting capitalism.
> Sure, there were a few people carrying signs about the "corporate
> oppressor." (I counted three of them.) But most of those people seem
> to like the choices that capitalism offers them. They just want it
> better. Kinder and gentler if you will.
> 
> And the march was four hours of one day. None of the people I know,
> anywhere in the world--and I have friends around the world--are
> looking to move to a system that offers a certainty of basic comforts
> with none of the benefits that also come with taking risks.
> 
> Maybe you'll say "Well, that's all they've ever known." True. But
> I don't see any evidence at all that our society, or any other, is
> looking to put an end to the system of independent market-based
> decision-making that capitalism offers. Do they want fewer oligarchs?
> Yes. Do they want more basics provided based on the wealth that the
> capitalism provides (like healthcare)? Hell yes. But actually getting
> rid of capitalism--and Uber, and AirBnB, etc.--nope, don't see it.
> 
> But, hey, maybe this group wants to start a Kickstarter campaign to
> fund Ending Capitalism. :)
> 
> [Sebastian, apologies: you're not my target here. Heck, I don't even
> know you! You just triggered the outpouring.]



But isn't that a good thing? (Not that we don't know each other -- that we can
trigger outpourings, I mean!)

When I framed my line of thought as "playing" an argument, that wasn't without 
reason. These are good times for testing ideas: most of us were so wrong about 
Brexit and Trump that we should revisit some more of our most firmly held 
assumptions. And it doesn't matter if these ideas are mine, yours, nettime's, 
Zizek-Varoufakis-Assange's, a tangent of some pre-existing -ism, or just a 
thinly veiled attempt at bitter irony.

I fully agree with what you're telling me about the marches. From what I've 
seen, people were protesting the phantasies of rape and lynchings that carried 
Trump into the Oval Office, and at the same time celebrating their difference. 
For day one, that was more, and more powerful, than anybody could have hoped 
for, and it was necessary. I'm 100% certain that 99% of those who marched 
couldn't even *define* capitalism. (And for the record: capitalism is all that 
*I* have ever known.)

But the catch is that you would have made the same baffling observation in the 
streets of Eastern Europe in 1989: Practically no-one was protesting socialism. 
And not only can you extend that argument to more recent uprisings -- the Paris 
or London Riots, the Arab Spring, Gezi Park --, it also holds for most of the 
revolutions that Western democracies are founded on. Regimes don't end because 
the people call them by their name and ask them to collapse. In terms of 
collective consciousness, a shared feeling that the present situation has 
become untenable is totally sufficient. And that feeling doesn't even have to 
articulate itself, or become proactive: the fact that the overall conditions 
have become unsustainable is enough.

My premise was that the end of market capitalism -- the former antagonist of 
state capitalism: the Soviet bloc - is primarily the result of market 
capitalism itself, that its capacity to contain the most fundamental 
contradictions it produces, or maintain the core ideologies that would justify 
them, is rapidily deteriorating. In the era of financialization, profit is no 
longer primarily extracted from human labor, by transforming natural resources, 
but from debt, by trading derivatives of future profits. These financial 
"instruments" no longer reflect, but effect capitalist production, which in 
return outputs an increasing arsenal of goods that no longer have any use value 
whatsoever, beyond their exchange value. This is the crisis of education, of 
housing, of the pension system, and as it leads to an obscenely uneven 
distribution of wealth, it becomes the terminal crisis of democracy, of 
participation. Fittingly, the 45th President of the United States is a bankrupt 
billionaire who has never built anything of use, just condos and casinos, and 
has never made any profit on a "free market", but exclusively through 
corruption, corporate welfare and bailouts. He even ran a university with a 
single-item curriculum -- fraud, taught by fraudsters -- and only one way to 
pass: to be defrauded. And again: it doesn't matter if people say this is 
scandalous or not. The fact that none of this is sustainable is enough.

At the same time, financialization is no longer accompanied by any strategies 
of containment or reintegration (unlike in the times when market capitalism 
still had to compete with state capitalism: the only form of competition it has 
ever known); one can already recognize it as a symptom, or mirror image, of the 
other -- glaringly obvious -- material runaway process that capitalism cannot 
control, which is the depletion of natural resources. Not just "peak oil", but 
"peak pollution", the exhaustion of the planet's capacity to absorb the output 
of industrial production in a way that could still be contained in the 
commodity form. We're still trading rights to future pollution, but in the most 
macabre sense, there is no use to further pollute. "The slogan 'Revolution or 
Death!' is no longer the lyrical expression of consciousness in revolt: rather, 
it is the last word of the scientific thought of our century." (Guy Debord, 
1973)

Of course, I am aware that the lament about capitalism's overproduction of 
contradictions, and the prophecies of its imminient failure to further contain 
them, is as old as capitalism itself. But you don't have to be an economic 
theorist or climate scientist (I'm neither, which is why I'm sorry for 
lecturing you) to get an accurate sense of capitalism's current trajectory, to 
see that this is not just yet another "critical" moment. You don't even have to 
be a computer programmer or mathematician, you only have to be able to identify 
an exponential when you see one, and to know what happens when a computational, 
social, economic, natural or second-natural process becomes exponential. Which 
is, for a long enough time: nothing special.

But from some point on, and I'd argue that's around now, 2008-16 (or since 
around 1970, if you zoom out a bit further), it's getting late on the curve of 
perpetual growth, and the antagonism you're talking about -- the "certainty of 
certain comforts" (state capitalism) versus the "benefits that come with taking 
risks" (market capitalism) -- becomes meaningless. If post-state market 
capitalism's magical ability to provide you with an illusion of both is 
evaporating, then that's because it can no longer provide you with an illusion 
of either. Your comforts are unsustainable, with certainty, and your benefits 
have already been traded to cope with future risk.

And these are *real* challenges, *practical* questions, which is why I had 
tried to come up with a best-case scenario for the near future, one that 
provokes more than just cynical answers. The US government denies the most 
basic banalities about ecological and economic processes. (To be fair: So does 
the overwhelming majority of the electorate, because, hey, how can something so 
big be so broken if it still works so well, for me? As you said: They just want 
it better.) But to accept climate change -- or capitalism -- as fact buys you 
nothing, you're going to have to deal with the consequences. For New Orleans, 
it's already too late. Of course, you can decide to give up Miami as well, and 
I won't shed a tear for Mar-a-Lago, but when it comes to New York, you'll 
better come up with a plan, and you're going to face a number of very major 
engineering challenges. There are a couple of Dutch people on this list, I'm 
pretty sure they can tell you a thing or two about sea levels. And these are 
the first-world problems. There's a country named Syria. From 2007 to 2010, it 
experienced an unprecedented drought -- directly attributable to human-induced 
rise of global temperatures -- leading to a massive migration of the rural 
population. Did you follow that story? Want to guess how it played out? And 
that's just one random example. Do you know what the Indian government has 
proposed to combat climate change, specifically the extreme droughts -- not 
new, just more severe, and impossible to manage with the instruments of market 
capitalism -- that are already killing and displacing millions? Google it. 
Genocide by means of geoengineering. It's going to be a Giant Leap Forward. 
Meanwhile, the planet won't stop throwing its own forces at you. Nuclear 
reactor on a geological fault? Good luck!

And you're going to face similar, if not greater challenges with regards to the 
redistribution of wealth, unless you want to withdraw to a cynical position: 
that capitalism is going to last, that it's going to even things out, redeal 
the chips and reset some accounts, just the same way it always does when the 
problem becomes acute. The obvious answer is war. What would be some of the 
less obvious answers? How can we make the amazing increases in human 
productivity productive, instead of capturing them in the form of labor? How 
can what we produce become shared and renewable resources, rather than 
commodities that lie to us, and then break? How can we use human intelligence 
for intelligent purposes, not just to game a broken system? How can we make the 
accumulation of useless property as unattractive as it should be, reverse the 
privatization of public resources, and invent forms of public life that allow 
for other forms of participation than just consumption?

One thing is certain: Brexit and Trump are going to significantly escalate the 
many processes of disintegration outlined above. The likelihood of catastrophic 
outcomes has risen sharply, but at the same time, new antagonisms are going to 
emerge, and they can escalate just as rapidly. When large structures fail, they 
fall quickly, and not always in the direction they appear to be leaning. Even 
the dumbest populace is composed of extremely smart individuals, who under 
duress often show the most phenomenal forms of collective intelligence, the 
exact opposite of what free market ideology assumes to be natural instinct of 
the fittest to survive. And given that capitalism, at its very core, is a 
specific type of relation between people, a chain reaction in the realm of the 
personal -- all that is unpolitical, unarticulated, unprepared, unconstructive 
-- can make it unravel rather quickly. This has been demonstrated again and 
again, in practice, even if only on relatively small scales, and for relatively 
short periods.

Is this "magical thinking"? Along with the tradition of demonstrating that 
"capitalism cannot last", there is a another long thread in Western thought, 
from "It is precisely the desperate situation which fills me with hope" (Marx 
to Ruge) to "Where there is danger, there grows also what saves" (Hölderlin via 
Adorno), that claims that the crisis itself sets free the potiential that can 
surmount it. This can be ridiculed just as easily, as the situation keeps 
getting more and more desperate. You can argue that the very movement of 
dialectics is the residue of religion in Marxist thought, Christianity's 
triangulation turned downside-up, or that "what saves" is reterritorialization 
at work, that "hope" is fully contained within capitalism. But what if you're 
right? Once the permanent growth of "what saves" becomes unsustainable itself, 
once the spectacle of hope (its "audacity") comes to an end, once capitalism 
fails to even produce its own opposition, once there is -- objectively, 
subjectively, collectively, individually, ecologically, economically -- *no 
future*, we might see a real opening.

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