What we haven't addressed in our investigation of the forms that political economy takes in our own time--neoliberalism, bigoted political reaction, capitalist economics--is the connection between these forms and popular consciousness. One of the first things we have to get rid of in order to do this is the assumption, constantly projected onto the situation by liberal and sometimes even conservative political commentary, that the popular consciousness is anything other than the system's "official account" of itself and its own operation.
The bedrock layer of public opinion--and more importantly of workers' opinions--of things, including important issues such as war, the global climate crisis, and the economic slump, is unavailable at this level of analysis. What Zizek's exploration of contemporary political reaction, Harvey's "brief history" of neoliberal economic and political manipulations, and even Harman's deep analysis of long term trends in capitalist accumulation all fail to register is the interdependent relationship between the contemporary development of social structure (economy) and the development of consciousness. (Zizek comes close to this in some of his other work, besides Violence, especially in The Sublime Object of Ideology and The Parallax View, but ultimately I think he fails to grasp the full dimensions and implications of this relationship.)
Consciousness and Desire
We're concerned here only with consciousness as a collective act. Consciousness as an individual phenomenon, the perception of the world and oneself, does not concern us (that's more in line with Zizek, Lacan, Freud, Sartre, even Foucault). What we mean by consciousness in this sense is the active attempt to obtain things, and the critical category relevant to this view of consciousness is desire. And this makes desire irreducibly social (economic) and political in nature, since it is impossible to obtain something without coming up against others who wish to obtain the same thing, or who wish to obtain something else which requires them first to obtain what one desires oneself. The perspective represented by this definition would seem to contradict the rejection of consciousness as sheer phenomenon, but only if we consider the individual in the act of desiring something that lies outside the total set of social-economic relations. This often happens in poetic descriptions. For instance, one can desire a stone on the beach--it has no real use in the economic system--but the moment one describes a collection of such stones to somebody else, they will no doubt (if they have any sensitivity at all) express a passive desire to have them by saying how wonderful they are and so forth. They might even describe a similar collection of useless objects of their own, spurring another (usually passive) expression of desire. But this is the only category of instance where the matter of passive versus active enters into desire. Otherwise all desire, strictly speaking, is active and economic, that is, it belongs to the sphere of social relations as they are usually played out, with all the attendant issues of value and exchange, and where the objects of desire are represented as commodities or objectified value.
The case of artistic products is more complex, but only slightly more. Art is that category of product which is both useful and useless at the same time, or, the category of things which have both a definite economic value and about which some aesthetic, or purely useless, quality is expressed. But note that it is the expression which gives it value and not merely its possession. If one had a very well done painting that nobody else knew about, or no critical body of work existed to describe, then it would have no economic value. Therefore art is both commodity and not commodity, as a condition for it being a commodity. And it is this duality, this simultaneity of two qualities in one, that make it valuable in any sense. Serious collectors are defined as those whose collections contain mostly works by artists about whom there is a well developed body of criticism, and mostly positive general appraisal. Granted, collectors also speculate by purchasing work by less well known artists, and controversial figures, but the situation has to resolve itself into a mostly positive one if they're to reap any reward, or it lapses back into a collection of objects for the enjoyment of the collectors and their friends, much like the stones in the earlier example.
It's interesting to note that advertising and marketing, in this sense, can also be considered widespread attempts to attach aesthetic qualities to things that previously were not thought of in such a way. For instance, cars are not just advertised for their speed, power, mechanical efficiency etc. They're also sold as beautiful, sleek, quirky, and even sublime. Collectors of "rare" and expensive sports cars go so far as to describe them as "works of art." Again, some speculation occurs, and so on...
All products, or objectified value in the form of commodities, are the basis of desire, and desire becomes the critical category of approach in a system of commodities and commodification. But we haven't really gotten beyond the "vantage point of capital" here, since value is still regarded as a property of the use to which objects can be put in the system. Or, in a circular sense, from capital's point of view: use value + market considerations (including supply & demand) = "realizable" value. This is further modified by competition and finds its final expression in prices.
Meszaros, Hegel, and the Snake
In a capitalist system such as our own, where value is a derivative of exploited surplus labor, whether the work is done in a factory or an office or an artist's studio, the conditions under which labor is carried out become important for a more critical approach. In his study, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, Istvan Meszaros, quotes Hegel at length on this issue, and then offers his critique.
From Hegel's Philosophy of Right (Clarendon, Oxford, 1942):
"The universal and objective element in work lies in the abstracting process which effects the subdivision of needs and means and thereby...subdivides production and brings about the division of labour. . . At the same time, this abstraction of one man's [sic] skill and means of production from another's completes and makes necessary everywhere the dependence of men [sic] on one another and their reciprocal relation in the satisfaction of their other needs . . . When men [sic] are thus dependent on one another and reciprocally related to one another in their work and the satisfaction of their needs, subjective self-seeking turns into a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else. That is to say, by a dialectical advance, subjective self-seeking turns into the mediation of the particular through the universal, with the result that each man [sic] in earning, producing, and enjoying on his own account is...producing and earning for the enjoyment of everyone else." [Hegel's emphases]
For Hegel, this all culminates in the emergence of the 'World Spirit' through which human beings will reach an unparalleled harmony with each other and the environment. Meszaros responds:
"To be sure, Hegel cannot deny that compulsion is somehow involved in this process. But he ideally transubstantiates also the compulsion into an organic constitutive moment of the best of all conceivable worlds . . . But what about those who do not work yet have much more than their 'livelihood' secured to them through their a priori established privileges, embodied in their--by Hegel idealized and by the 'ethical state' forcefully protected--private property? That kind of embarrassing question, which would undermine the projected idyllic finality of the World Spirit's determinations, cannot find its place in any discourse conceived from the vantage point of capital."
We encounter this idealizing of the system's rootedness in exploitation again and again in our everyday efforts to oppose it, and often when there seems to be no effort at opposition going on. Gilles Deleuze, in one of his last works, "Postscript on the Societies of Control," notes how control in our time seems to operate more and more on a micro-level, addressing itself to the individual through various means. One comes up against it like the endlessly repeating coils of a snake, as he describes it, forever tightening its grip on oneself and society. And the more we try and escape from the coils, the more they tighten, a pronounced feature of today's reactionary politics. When companies are challenged by anti-globalists to end slave wage labor in Third World countries, the transnational corporations respond by making declarations about their commitment to "human rights," cleaning up their act a little in one place, and moving the rest of their production someplace else. In other words, the companies rebrand themselves as defenders of workers, something that Nike has successfully done with much of its First World customer base, including many working class people, despite continuing to be deeply involved in sweatshop labor. Again, these reactions by the system have led to specious theories, some of them based on a radically altered Deleuze, about how capitalism survives by creating the conditions for "revolutions" from within itself. This should be taken about as seriously as Nike's claims.
So what about moving beyond the vantage point of capital? We're bombarded today, as we've noted, with many types of anticapitalist critique. Anti-war, anti-globalist (sometimes nativist), anti-consumerist, and other forms of resistance, including the very effective local resistance to gentrification and other problems of the city, are all now part of our leftist vocabulary. But each of these efforts eventually comes up against the primary counter-argument of the system: that this is the only natural, possible, historically unique system, and that its "progress," however unequal, miserable, and destructive, is inevitable. This self-naturalizing layer of the system seems impassable to those involved in anticapitalist efforts, and many of them stop dead once it is introduced into the argument by the managers of control (whether local, national, or global agencies of control are involved), so that overall anticapitalism appears to many like a car that is continually coming to a stop, or that is diverted again and again. Or, in the case of serious, multigenerational efforts such as civil rights, indigenous peoples rights etc., it appears to be slowly running out of gas.
One of the problems is the way in which the division and subdivision, and further subdivision, of labor in our present global economy, also separates the various movements of resistance, and the various actors within these movements from each other. Far from always acting as an agent of reciprocity, as Hegel claims, the overall organization of the social-economic system created by capital, as Meszaros counters, is marked by inequality and struggle. And as a result, it's stratiated by a number of class divisions. Class acts as a barrier to bringing the various anticapitalist efforts together, but more specifically, it acts at the level of consciousness to efface the underlying exploitive dynamic of the system and to reimpose the tired script of reaction-counter-reaction as an "inevitability." Classes, according to the classical Hegelian vantage point of capital, are supposed to cooperate in order to make the system run--and to bring about some kind of ultimate harmony.
By taking things from this point of view, and only adding class conflict into the whole while at the same time insisting on their own role in it, many of the contemporary movements of resistance end up reproducing one of the most oppressive and brutal moments in the system: the elimination of other systemic possibilities from view. Furthermore, by adhering to the vantage point of capital, class provincialism has come to play a large role in some of these movements, especially the self-identifying "radical middle class" movements for "change" (a broad, vague category that can certainly be made to fit into the traditionally opportunistic script of the radical bourgeoisie). One is reminded of some of the "radicals" of Marx and Engel's day, whom the two main proponents of revolutionary dialectical materialism both supported and criticised. For example, LaSalle, who thought that conflict between revolutionaries from different classes could be fought through the force of his own personality...and found out how terribly wrong he was.
What we end up with is a proliferation of different types of politics of resistance, where each aim at a different target but all are subject to the same social-economic forces and the same underlying rootedness of the system, and of all value as defined by the system, in exploitation. This is why Deleuze and others concentrate on desire as a tissue that ties together many things: as we've pointed out, desire is the most operative singular critical term in explaining systems of value and exchange. It's also one way of seeing the various divisions of labor in the system without succumbing entirely to the perspective available from within any one segmentation. Or in other words, a critique based around desire has the advantage of immunising us to some extent from the influence of the limiting, self-naturalising scripts of class provincialism which tend to reproduce the vantage point of capital.
The American Segmentation: Where Are Our Mountains?
Michael Hardt, who has tried to work through some of these problems in his books with Toni Negri (Empire, Multitudes), once related to an interviewer how when he was helping revolutionary movements in the 80's in Latin America, he asked his colleagues there what he could do in America to help their cause. One person, who had been fighting in a rebel movement, told him: "Do you have mountains in America?" "Yes," Hardt replied, uncertain of the significance. "Then go to the mountains," the battle-hardened soldier told him, "and make revolution."
The response would be laughable if it weren't so tragic in its implications. Of course the situation is so vastly different in different parts, or segments, of the global system, that it boggles the mind. Still, one might be tempted to ask: "Where are our mountains in America?"
The part we play in the global struggle is unclear. We might consider ourselves to be at the center of the system, in certain ways, and this is true--in certain ways. But with the advent of international financial institutions like the WTO and World Bank, the situation became more complex. Capital can flow into almost any part of the system rapidly. But labor, and the resistance that goes along with it when agitated by conditions, or activists, or both--often does not follow the capital flows. Sometimes there is substantial investment, sometimes it's limited to purely financial concerns. Sometimes the movements of speculative capital have disastrous local consequences for labor. Sometimes they don't. Any resistance that relies on a quotidian factor of predictability can be taken off guard, if not completely wiped out, by losing its base of support virtually overnight. This points to the importance of internationalism in any anticapitalist struggle if it's going to work in the long run at opposing global capital's worst effects: the super-exploitation of certain workers, and capital flight. It's easy enough to identify the workers most at risk, they live in the potential and already realized "economic development zones" in some of the poorest countries in the world.
But this doesn't answer the irrationally rational question that confronts us: "Where are our mountains in America?"
Perhaps an answer can be found by looking more closely at how labor is subdivided right here . . .
Meszaros quotations from:
Istvan Meszaros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness: Volume I, The Social Determination of Method, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010.