What is negative capitalism?

My first solo book, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era will be published by Zero Books in 2012. Below I introduce the core argument of this new work, which I intend to finish writing in mid-December.

Working at any available place or space time, at any available waking hour. Pressure collision, further deprivation necessary: an extra push here, crunch-time there, a freeze in wages. Time taken off sick, stressed, depressed. To feel like nothing is what we’re talking about: negated, denied, disenfranchised, one’s worth assessed by the sum total of data surrounding one’s names and appropriate numbers. Without sex, soul, or heart. No longer even labour, our work increasingly unpaid or underpaid.

Who were we, honey? The casual alcohol and light drug dependency, occasional self-harm, be it public or private, of one’s mid to late teens now traded in for mega debt levels, being skint and out of time, always a little bit too late. Frenzied working and in between that friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurones with to-do emails, viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes and DIY porno. This is living.

But we’re not victims. Humour and piss-take are the most common forms of opposition to the banalities and tosh of everyday life. But our experiences in common tell the same thing: lives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present we continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternative. But the support and ideas that sustained those in the past to think beyond themselves are receding – political utopianism, social democracy, even the more problematic Victorian notion of ‘public’ in its libraries and parks are all in decline. The cultivated self has been traded in for the consumer-demographic individual. Online profiles, video games and other kinds of recorded data have abstracted the self into individual data. Alternative spaces of reflection, the sacred or the profane, that might instil a feeling of empowerment through religious or political awe are disappearing. Food is the final object empowered with superstitious notions that might fundamentally alter our essence. Count the calories. As the tides of history recede some stragglers use their day-off to prospect for evidence of a missing future, possible but not at this moment, not for us at least. This melancholia is exhausting and far too indulgent. Negative Capitalism is therefore not a novel, but a political strategy.

*

To describe the entire political-economic system as a totality requires an explanation. Seemingly there are too many chaotic and contrary forces across the world to allow a simple singular reduction – even a term like ‘system’ seems tenuous, implying that a single and stable network of relations exists between all individuals, as if we could all share one language, one culture, or one standard mode of behaviour. But all life has been linked together and permeated by one universal relation, something which is entirely made and defined our sense of reality, be it in psychological terms, social terms, cultural, economic or other – organised capital. There is no escape from capitalism. All forces are globally engaged in a single language expressed in the trade of shares, commodities, bonds, properties, resources, hours, and votes. Money. These have been exchanged often by small number of stable currencies with one overarching and universal currency. For the first half of the 20th century, this was British pound sterling; in the latter half, the US Dollar. Capital is now the shared language of all political and economic forces. Some of us might not like how or why it operates, but opportunities to escape its enclosure of reality have on the whole disappeared. The wild and the weird are endangered, partitioned off into poverty or mined into for hipster marketing strategies.

The forces in the system, in keeping with genetic and cultural imperatives throughout human history, seek their own continued existence and self-perpetuation. In simpler terms, to exercise and increase their power. In industry, the drive for factory and business owners to increase their wealth by maximising profit – by reducing labour costs and increasing or refining modes of production through industrial techniques – is called capitalism. Business and factory owners generate profit through the manipulation of their capital. Think of capitalism in the past: a period-drama of a Charles Dickens tale, a cold and callous factory-owner sticking his boot up the arse of a ragged workhouse-child who tumbles down into some industrial furnace. It quickly illustrates that capital was defined by the possession of labour, workers; the private ownership of the means of production – factories, mines, etc.; using increasing scales of machinery, factory, quantities of workers to forcibly organise social life around the factory. Finally, the capitalist would receive a great deal more of the wealth return of the product than any of the workers. This organisation of social and political life around economic production has determined the lives of our grandparents and parents, establishing economic production as the principle activity and active principle of human societies in the West.

What has transformed in the last fifteen years is the means in which capital operates. The factories and mines have largely closed down, as have the industrial-scale public services and bureaucracies that existed around them. This isn’t disappearing – it’s simply shifted to cheaper sites in China and India. The heavy regulation of social life has also seemingly waned. Divorce, diversity and creativity are now cliches of our era. Working hours and sites of labour have melted into the home laptop and any public place with wi-fi internet. New cottage/bedsit industries are emerging in marketing and graphic design. In turn, capital has become increasingly productive. Whilst the public finances of nation-states stagnate into further debt and tax breaks, private corporations and their extremely high-paid CEOs are increasing their returns. The costs of production continue to shrink: for labour, wages are frozen or pension schemes cancelled; for production, overheads are reduced as desks are sold and factories, shops and offices closed down. Economic production becomes abstracted to online computer-based exchange. Unlike the factory, the computer is open at all hours; the work emails available at all hours. The traditional definition of 9-5 disappears, as managers are driven by their managers to drive workers to increased productivity, resulting in longer working hours, carried out often furtively in one’s spare time. Increasing stress, depression and anxiety are the existential cost of this aggressive speed-up of capitalism. This is what I call negative capitalism.

In the West, capitalism described how wealth-owners and traders generated wealth privately. Increasing labour forces in turn organised themselves into trade unions, and demanded a fairer share in the profits of their own produce, political representation, equal employment rights, and a basic quality of life – meted out in welfare, pensions, annual paid holiday and so on. This conflict, predicted by Karl Marx as an inevitable internal implosion of capitalism that would lead to communism, instigated widespread social upheaval across the 20th century, in trade union disputes, race riots and countercultural movements. Capitalists sought to increase their wealth-generation without the cost of labour or the threat of withdrawn labour. From the early 20th century onwards, political economists like Friedrich Hayek considered how capitalism could respond to the threat of organised communism in the form of the Soviet Union, as well as strong internal currents of dissent within the West. Neoliberalism became an idea where capitalists could overpower democratically-elected sovereign governments – sometimes composed of or responding to these socialist movements  – by using unregulated financial exchange (AKA ‘free trade’, or ‘the markets’) to determine the economic modes of production. This might seem like a removal of politics from economics then – surely deregulation meant that business could exist ‘naturally’ (‘nature’ and social Darwinian cliches like Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ are often employed), in an idyllic state of uninterrupted bliss, free of the taint of politics, free of political corruption? Instead neoliberalism became primarily a political gesture, led by politicians as a strategy to acquire full control over the conditions of labour. A pretty important gesture during an era of increasing trade unionism and independent thinking.

Political groups became disempowered by being unable to manage or regulate financial trade, which now determine as a single language most if not all human relations – a tentative claim in 1971, but a dreary but blatant conclusion after reading any newspaper forty years on. As political groups lost real economic power beyond tax-collection, capitalists could continue to fund political parties with donations in exchange for a say in policy or decision-making. Private funding and lobbying has also allowed sympathetic politicians to reach power, or reach a far wider media coverage, as the political cultures and classes of the US and UK demonstrate in cases like Rupert Murdoch, the Mittal scandals with Peter Mandelson, and many others, some of which are analysed further in.

Capitalists solved the irritating problem of labour: workers would have to train themselves, endow themselves with human capital, and perform as human resources within their increasingly homogeneous organisations. A deregulation of pension and labour rights dreamt of by Reagan and Thatcher during the 1980s but carried out with far more efficacy by Bush and Blair in the 2000s achieved the desired management of labour. A more effectively managed labour force results in greater increases in profit-making, if not productivity.  Stable employment, union representation, contractual working rights, paid sick leave and pensions become expensive ‘luxuries’ that politicians managed to opt workers out of, largely through additional legislative regulation. The irony is that whilst financial trade was deregulated from the 1970s to the present across the West, labour has been increasingly regulated.

Examples: the freedom to independently operate in a work-place is disrupted by health and safety regulations. A trade union strike must be legally approved prior by a recognised ballot of its members. A political protest can only occur with the legal approval of the police, at an agreed time and route, rendering in all cases more hassle and less independence to make decisions. Creativity is the language of advertising. For the majority of workers and non-workers, labour is increasingly managed and increasingly dull. The open-plan office renders concentrated distraction like book-reading impossible – the only skive activities permissible offer information extremely quickly without demanding concentration or reflection, appealing to basic narcissistic impulses – Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Increasing unemployment and underemployment has led to a gratitude complex where longer hours and more debasing tasks are lapped up with paranoiac relish. We must justify our positions. If we stopped working, the world might end.

Stress, anxiety and depression have risen across the capitalist world in response to this intensifying economic politic of capitalism. The World Health Authority now estimate that by 2020 depression will be the second biggest disease burden across the globe, whilst one third of all deaths by adults aged 15-44 across the world are suicides.[1] This isn’t just a charity’s armageddon image of damaged refugees in some African state or ruined region of Afghanistan either. In London, suicide and deaths of undetermined intent are the single biggest killer of young men – 119 in 2010, and likely to rise – more than both violent assault or road traffic accidents put together.[2] Young people are living through the contradictions of this economic politic and now carry the scars and bruised knuckles of boredom, debt, unemployment, lack of shelter, having too many pressures to have happy relationships, or few places of support or community to now draw on. They have nothing. Forget the author’s facade – I’m 24, I can say that we have nothing. No commons to draw on. No cause to champion, no nation or national team to support (the cultural impact of neoliberalism and the pursuit of money above all else is clearly visible in the decline of British football over the last thirty years into Sky TV, mediocre and overpaid players and overpriced, underwhelming matches. The dissent of the sporting fixture – the chanting, the threat of violent eruption – still offers some opportunity that labour is waiting and in potential to act in its own interests. Unfortunately at the sporting fixture, what this labour desires is a good old fashioned lairy brawl). Even the future, that pasture of the American dream and countless others, has been deleted or postponed into infinite abeyance. As Kafka puts it, there is ‘plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us’.[3] A five or six-figure debt will take decades to repay. There’ll be more from Kafka later. As a result of this economic politic, workers are denied, disempowered, negated, depressed, humiliated. This is the human cost of the neoliberal system. I call it negative capitalism.

Quality of life is something anyone interested in happiness will desire. A truism of course, but let’s unravel how quality of life operates. This involves, as philosophers and psychologists have variously explained, shelter, access to clean water and food, a peaceful and stable society, a sufficient distribution of roles or employment, health, friendship/altruism, and opportunities for education, religion and culture for self-fulfilment and relaxation. Quality of life is largely denied by the economic politic of neoliberal capitalism, as the single drive to increase wealth privately causes as we well know ecological, social and political damage – holes in O-zone layer, increased poverty and unemployment, political destabilisation and irrelevance of democratic government. Quality of life should then become the point at which the subject of change is broached. Why?

Is capitalism inevitable in an industrialised society? No. Centering production or work purely around increasing profit tends to make production even more inefficient and corrupt. Historical cases like the Soviet Union offer some  alternatives, however problematic.

Is capitalism the best of all possible worlds? Probably not, if its default operational mode is continual crisis and emergency, usually used as reasons to justify wars and greater intrusions or deprivations in social life. For a seemingly stable system, there are a great deal of wars, preventable deaths and suffering visible at all its points.

What’s the alternative? There isn’t an alternative. There cannot be an opt-out or exile from capitalism. The logic of economic enclosure of all life into abstracted capital means that all alternative spaces will eventually become commodified – think of the early 1970s counterculture, or the entrepreneurial development of black American hip hop from its initial social anger.  Instead of thinking about an alternative, there needs to be a decisive and determined move towards transforming life around us. This has to be done on the level at which control and negation occurs – the political and the economic. Dissent at just a cultural level is safely self-nullifying to the financial power and arrogance of neoliberal governments. This might use the language of quality of life and rational government to generate a new, regulated and global system of social democracy. The trade of resources and production would continue, channelled in a far more technologically and socially sustainable way. Political systems could be standardised and stabilised into representative and regularly-elected democracies with legally-binding global agreements on working rights, public control of infrastructure, production and management of resources and equality across social life. None of this is particularly radical. But when it is compared to the current political crisis of western governments and social life within the US and UK, it seems painfully idealistic. No historical event happens because it deserves to, because it should, for the sake of fairness or karmic return. Transformation must be acted by a mass of agents, who lose their individuality by behaving as a democratic mass. This democratic responsibility is something required by all.

Individually, there is little we can do to alter anything. We’re nothing. No, we’re in fact mindless direct debits to a good cause or we’re that person wearing shoes or a jacket in a long line of young people queuing through a cold European city centre, late for work, or passively along for a corralled seasonal protest, or in a post office to queue to send off a housing benefit claim that continues to be denied by impossible requests for imaginary documentation by agents who may not exist, empty assessors and data administrators who deny our quality of life, the same assessors and data administrators we become and work as for many years under temp contracts, cynically disinvesting ourselves of any agency or utopianism about our lives. It’s easier that way. Individually, no – very little. Expecting a democratic vote to meaningfully convey a political opinion or ensure fair local representation in the House of Commons is also meaningless – only 23% of the UK electorate voted for a Conservative Party candidate in the last election, who now lead the current political and economic strategy of the UK in the Coalition government.[4] (Of course no-one voted for the Coalition government, whilst one suggestion to increase local political representation – ‘AV’, the Alternative Vote – was also denied by voters in 2011, encapsulating the peculiar cynicism and political constipation of the British). And of this 23% who seemingly got what they paid for with their vote, are now being short-changed by various policy about-faces, egg-on-faces and an increasingly private government of the Prime Minister, Chancellor and leading business and media figures. So like any Kafka novel, the individual is entirely limited to never reaching what they desire.

Rather than write a psychological novel about negative capitalism played out in the individual’s tormented mind as the temptation might be, as it has been for Modernists since William Faulkner and James Joyce, I’m instead challenging the power of the individual to shape historical events. The individual worker is the one targeted and addressed by the citizenship of neoliberal capitalism – their right to spend and consume for themselves alone, offered in a social contract by debt. By instead behaving as a democratic mass who, through calculated organisation and cunning, target specific points of weakness and actively disrupt them, workers will gain a control and mastery over themselves and over the conditions of social life to rival and ultimately outmode the old destructive crisis politics of negative capitalism. The mass therefore need to disobey social conventions and disrupt the system of managed consent as I call it in the UK, the current set of social relations that make a disorganised mass of individuals seem like a ‘society’, as ‘English’, or ‘British’, ‘western’, ‘white’ or ‘black’, etc. This needs to be through a series of violent disruptions, for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and ecological destruction wreaked on social life globally as an effect of capitalist modes of production. Examples include hacking, debt-strikes and tax-strikes, creating new local and national parliaments autonomously, community organisation, damage to financial sites of exchange, community supermarket challenge competitions, and so on. Tbe cheeky opportunism and genuine anger of the August 2011 teenage riots demonstrates the power of this approach. Political and economic systems cannot manage this chaos, particularly at a time when in order to maintain and maximise tax reduction on corporations and the wealthy, they have cut back staffing and funding in key social forces like social services, mental health teams, further education colleges, community charities and police). They no longer have the resources to manage or regain control of communities where they to lose it, who have been increasingly exploited and malnourished for decades, and where depression and breakdown are increasing. Here is an opportunity and a need for action. Not reaction, alternatives, voting for a Green politician or direct debits to a good cause. Action.

Disruption by a single mass of chaotic elements will tip the scales back towards democratic decision-making with maintaining and improving social life as the heart of its concern – social democracy. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’, as many moral critiques or defences of capitalism assume. Humans are not just dupes pre-programmed by genetics to conquer and destroy. Following chaos or trauma such as any major war, people do work together to solve problems collectively and generate new social and economic relations. It’s less sexy, but people enjoy conversation, friendship and generosity far more than consuming or working. Think of the happiest people one personally knows of, and they share these traits.

*

‘It is possible…but not at this moment’: Kafka’s utterance from “Before the Law” signals the stage in 20th century culture where the individual could no longer have confidence in knowing what was true, or having access to stable meanings or an understanding of how the machinery of power operates.[5] It reminds us that individuals cannot hope that things will get better of their own accord, that capitalism will somehow sort itself out and happiness and positive engagement with replace the current condition of negation. Moral ideas of good and bad are redundant. Capitalism itself works very well: whilst labour sees its pensions, rights and health collapse, capital flows free, increasing in the hands of private CEOs, banks and investment companies. The current political deadlock in the US and the Eurozone masks a tacit agreement between politicians and capitalists to stall and do nothing, thereby not interfering with the fundamental processes of neoliberal capitalism which have caused the huge debt crisis in these regions. Democracies have become redundant, their elected representatives deposed of like unfaithful colonial puppet leaders when financial capitalists decree in private decisions. Just as there should not be hope things will naturally stabilise, or politicians will suddenly see the light, there shouldn’t be any assumption that social life will survive by doing nothing. Depression, suicide, poverty, irreversible environmental destruction and ill-health will continue to increase the longer no mass violent action is enacted. There will be a response. People aren’t stupid, but time is running out and no clear strategies are on offer so far. Here is one. Try it.

This work aims to detail the scale of the problem – negative capitalism and its existential costs, and the cultural effects of cynicism. Rather than reel off a utopian fairy-world of whats and whys, the book cuts instead to the how part, of strategy. I don’t attempt to maintain the arrogance that I know how exactly we all should live, or that ‘we all’ (assuming that all of you already agree with me, another conceit I want to avoid)  should act or behave in one way or another. The aim is to stimulate response with a series of wild, occasionally arrogant and deliberately inflammatory arguments. I do think I have an answer to the problem of negative capitalism I describe, what I briefly outlined as social democracy above, but these must be challenged where possible. Cynical passivity is the problem. Nothing less than a basic quality of life is the prize and the end.

Lastly, the book has been written in separate sections with a consistent argument, so if a section isn’t working for you then skip ahead. The reader can also read the sections in a different order to how the author has arranged them here.

[1]  World Health Authority, “SUPRE the WHO Worldwide Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide” [http://www.who.int/mental_health/management/en/SUPRE_flyer1.pdf].

[2] Source: Deaths Registrations Data, Office for National Statistics. Deaths by specified cause in London, 2010. Data requested. Young men refers to all males aged 15-34. The number of deaths by land traffic accident in the same age-group totalled 56, and for violent assaults 59.

[3]  Conversation overheard by Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), 112-113.

[4] The UK population in the year leading up the mid-2010 stood at 62.3 million. At the last UK election of 2010, the total electorate numbered around 47 million. Of these, 65% turned out to vote – a figure of around 30.5 million. Of this 30.5 million, 36% voted Conservative, the eventual minority government which ended up forming a coalition with the Lib Dems which they have since dominated, and of which the Lib Dems subsequently abandoned the majority of their manifesto pledges and policies to adopt a neoliberal Conservative agenda.  36% of 30.5 million is about 11 million, the number who have ultimately democratically elected the government, against 36 million who did not – 23% of the UK electorate, or 18% of the UK population.

[5] “Before the Law”. Franz Kafka, The Trial, in The Complete Novels: The Trial, America, The Castle, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Vintage, 2008), 185.

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