Power at the End of the Economy

»Any politics of individualism based on an economy of self-interested personal choice has missed the boat.« (Brian Massumi) – Economy in this particular form as we used to know it, say the members of n-1, a concept born out of the necessity to create new organizational forms and ideas, has reached its limit. But what will life be after the collapse of our values? How to start operating beyond the existing system? Is economy »no longer a matter of ›economics‹«? (Akseli Virtanen). A discussion by the philosophers and theorists of new political economy about arbitrary power, desire, the »dividual« and machinic enslavement.

Akseli Virtanen: The end of the economy as we know it and how to interpret its new nature and organisation. – That is the subject of the next books coming out now in the n-1 series: Brian’s Power at the End of the Economy. Journey to the Neoliberal Limit, Maurizio’s Signs, Machines, Subjectivities, my Arbitrary Power. A Critique of Biopolitical Economy and Peter’s Cartography of Exhaustion. Nihilism Inside Out.

As we discuss in the books, the questions of the future should begin here and now: from understanding the relationship between the exhaustion of possible at our disposal and how the production of value functions today.

We need to add a whole new dimension to economic and political thinking: the production of wealth depends on affective uncertainty and indeterminate existential activity. This cannot be reduced to political, economic or linguistic representations and it is unmanageable with their methods. Economy is no longer a matter of ›economics‹. It captures and exploits something more profound: the process of singularisation and production of new modes of subjectivation based on desire.

Peter Pál Pelbart: Akseli, in your book you attempt to rethink and understand economy based on the same premise that has lead political philosophy to speak of biopolitics. Thus, the starting point is simple: if the dissolution of the boundaries between economy and other areas of life is essential for politics today, it must also be the case for economics today.

AV: To say that economy has become ›biopolitical‹ means that elements related to bios – the Greek word for ›good life‹ – have entered into the production of economic value. These elements include experience, understanding, ability to create new meanings as well as relational and collective abilities. They contribute to the foundational collapse of the modern economy because it cannot understand this with its restricted conception of value and how it is produced. The economy has to find another way of functioning. We are witnessing the transformation of the nature of economy. The financialization of economy can only be understood in relation to this. It is not the cause of our misery, but rather a logical way for capitalism to react to changing circumstances without losing the grip of the accumulation of value. It is a development of a new form of grip which is about the control of future, a method to reduce what will be to what is now, to tie future potentiality to the present power relation. So even if the foundations of economy collapse it does not mean it did not function.

In trying to explain this paradox my book reveals how in such an arbitrary condition the economy must return to its roots as ›political economy‹ in the original sense, namely the ›management of everything‹. This was the first meaning of political economy in the 18th century. That is, economy as general organisation of existence and production of society, experience, habits, relations, emotions, subjectivity. It extends beyond the modern restricted sense of economy as a semi-autonomous sphere of reality with its own independent economic laws of supply and demand and market rationality. It must give this up and find a way to operate without the law of value or after the collapse of the law. It means the end of economy as we used to know it and the birth of arbitrary power.

Peter, you also discuss arbitrary power in your book.

PPP: Well, in the book I take Nietzsche’s analysis of nihilism as my starting point. For Nietzsche it is a way of thinking about what happens when the gravitational centres of life – for example work, employment, wage, the defense of the welfare state and so on for us – are decentered into nothingness. What is life after the collapse of our values? When values respected as supreme lose their credibility, life needs a new topography without a centre. What we should take from Nietzsche is his insight that the trust in existing values is the sickening of the will, that nihilism is necessary for the transvaluation of values – values which are always about a type of life imposing itself on others – and that creation of values should start from will’s own strength. That is why he says creators are destroyers. The feeling of destruction, of the end of the world, involves a strange creativity: creation of a new world. My book works with this constellation between nihilism, crisis, exhaustion and creation.

Brian, you explore a similar field to mine but from a different angle, by deconstructing the individual as an economic actor.

Brian Massumi: It is clear that the individual subject of interest forming the fundamental unit of capitalist society is internally differentiated. There is an ›infra-individual‹ complexity quasi-chaotically agitating within the smallest unit. The individual remains the smallest unit despite this infra-level complexity, since what resonates on that level are not separable elements in interaction. This means indeed that we need to add a whole new dimension to economic thinking. Beneath the micro-economic level of the individual there is the infra-economic level. The individual is not one. It may collect itself as one, but it itself is many. That is, many tendencies: potential expressions and orientations held together in tension. The ›individual‹ is the ›dividual‹. The dividual is the individual as affective infra-climate, in relation to itself. Nothing divides and multiplies the individual so much as its own relation to the future. The uncertainty we experience is not just external accidents and the unpredictable actions of others. It agitates within.The affective infra-climate of the dividual poised for what may come is the indeterminate system of the economy.

AV: In effect you say to the economists that they cannot approach and govern with their methods something whose nature and rationality is totally different. You show the irreducible incompatability between the rationality of economy and the affective uncertainty of dividuality. Or in other words this particular form of economy as we used to know it has reached its limit. A new capitalist alchemy is needed to transmutate this uncertainty into profit. We need to add a whole new dimension to economic thinking if we want to understand this.

BM: Yes. When micro-economic considerations of the actual process of individual choice join macro-economic considerations of complexity and uncertainty, together they lead to the inescapable conclusion: any politics of individualism based on an economy of self-interested personal choice has missed the boat.

AV: I think this is a key moment because this seems to be the conclusion of the capital as well. It needs new methods in an uncertain world whose future must be organised and value production captured. That is why neo-liberalism coincides with massive withdrawal from normative-disciplinary regime of power and moves towards conditioning uncontrolled open environments, as you say. In my book I discuss such power as a production of ethics, namely the ›second nature‹ that guides our thinking, behaviour and self-realisation.

Aristotle’s formulation of ethos is that second nature guides self-realisation as it is through this that one becomes what one is to others. It is an internal force since one needs to behave in the right way, make the right decisions, even when there is nobody watching. For one to want to behave in the right way, obedience is not enough. The government cannot be external but must become corporeal, it must become flesh. That is the only way to organise on the level of uncertain potentiality and possibilities of life. The production of ethics means the presetting of the environment or conditions of action, thinking and relating to the presence of others. It is like a self evidency. Self-evidencies do not transmit any information or contain any particular meaning. They cannot be contested; only accepted, repeated and followed as if unnoticed. These ›common places‹ are the conditions of all meaningful interaction.

For Aristotle, axioms were precisely these common places shared by all, the most general premises that put a halt to the endless regression of causes and effects. When we accept a ›stopped belief‹ we accept it as the repetition of something already said or known, which does not bring anything new to the conversation. This power to transmit a ›message‹ without content that does not refer to anything outside itself defines authority: the message without content is a pure order. It cannot be discussed; it can only be obeyed and followed.

Self-evidence shares the structure of a pure order, in that the means separate from the end and are therefore in a relationship only with their own instrumentality. A pure order is like a mere appearance, a display of the word detaching from the thing that refutes the very idea of the referentiality of language. Pure government is pure command which does not refer to anything outside itself. It is arbitrary. It predisposes action and thought by establishing the conditions of action and thought that can only be followed. Arbitrary power is about the control of the uncontrollable or the uncertain. It is about the government of a system which is too complex to be governed through a meaning or some other external principle – such as reason, task, value. When this reduction becomes impossible, power adopts the arbitrary mode.

BM: What we are now seeing is a movement away from sympathy. When the disciplinary-normative hierarchies that channeled the ability to sympathise into resemblance, and familiarity based solidarities and belongings are in crisis – as is the case now – effective preconditioning is necessary to suppress or demonise the perception of difference. Given the proliferative nature of capitalism, virulent preconditioning tending toward fascist contagion are required to shore up the sense of identity and reimpose boundaries. This can be seen in the rise of the far right in the United States, beginning with the formal setting in place of the financial mechanisms of the neoliberal economy of the late 1970s. What remained of the social democratic model was destroyed by the crash of 2008 and the subsequent policies of austerity brutally imposed an abrupt transition to a fully fledged neoliberal model.

Maurizio Lazarrato: The promises of wealth for all of us through hard work, credit and finance have proved empty. We know now that only the interests of owners of securities and creditors are protected. A lot of critical theories neglect or fail to understand this machinic nature of the economy. Money and finance are perfectly capable of deterritorializing social matters. Dividual is a piece of the machinic assemblage but it is also torn into pieces by it. What I call machinic enslavement does not work with subjects and object but with their deterritorialization. Subjective economy means subjectivity existing for the machine, subjective components as functions of enslavement which activates pre-personal, pre-cognitive and pre-verbal forces (perception, sense, affect, desire) as well as supra-personal forces (machinic, social, linguistic, economic) which go beyond the subject.

BM: We must start operating beyond persuasion and communication, take the game outside of identities and ›self‹ and towards dividuals, incremental desire and imitation, information deficit, and distrust. We need to take advantage of the ongoing deterritorialization and move towards politics of dividualism. It means engaging neoliberalism where it draws its power: in its paradoxes, in its arbitrariness, in its dividualism and not on rational decision making and market based organisation.

PPP: The key question for us is how to begin a process of subjectivation independent and autonomous from the capitalist hold on subjectivity on the dividual level, its modalities of production and forms of life.

ML: We need to ask how to imagine a politically engaged life whose precondition breaks the habit and values of established conventions; how to start suspension of dominant significations, cancelling out the hold of machinic enslavements.

The discussion in full length is available at www.futureartbase.org.