Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Does theory guarantee emancipatory action?

The triumph of neoliberalism globally, with the exception of a few pockets of resistance, signifies the weakness of theory, that is, of the claims that theory is endowed with the resources to transform the world through a kind of enlightenment followed by emancipatory action.

What evidence is there, however, that neoliberal capitalism reigns supreme in the early 21st century? There are many research sources which confirm this, albeit ambiguously – that is, while simultaneously drawing attention to the many indications that resistance to neoliberalism is increasing. Foremost among those who have gathered evidence of the hegemony of neoliberalism are the two redoubtable neomarxist thinkers, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who have done so in their monumental trilogy, Empire (2001), Multitude (2005) and Commonwealth (2009), followed by Declaration (2012), and most recently, Assembly (2017).

While, in Empire, they outlined the emergence of the new supranational world order-juggernaut at several levels – including the political, economic, cultural and technological – showing that these are all intertwined today, and that it is well-nigh impossible to assign primacy to either of them, Multitude marks their account of the state of constant war in the present so-called ‘democratic’ world, as well as of the protests against and resistance to this fraught state of affairs by the emergent force they dub ‘multitude’. Commonwealth, in turn, is predicated on the existence of the ‘the common’ – not just in the sense of common interests that should motivate a concerted effort on the part of people to work towards the realisation of the good society in a well-structured manner, but in the most fundamental sense of clean air, arable soil, drinkable water and the bounty of nature, which should be freely accessible to everyone.

This is exactly where Hardt and Negri reveal their true radicality, though. To these ‘commons’ they add the fruits of scientific and technological progress; in brief, all knowledge and information produced in the context of the information revolution – these should be accessible to all people, not only to those with power and/or money. What they are advocating is true ‘open source’ status of all knowledge, instead of it being hogged by private corporations and governments. Predictably, their target is private property, which stands in the way to a complete reconstruction of the political sphere. In the interest of the common, things should not be privatised.

What is crucial for the question, above, of theory’s capacity to lead to emancipatory action, is Hardt and Negri’s dependence on Foucault’s notion of ‘biopolitical’ production – that is, the claim that we live at a time when we no longer witness the production, primarily, of consumer goods. Of course these are still being produced, but what turns the wheels of capitalism today is (even more fundamentally than the information economy) the production of subjectivities, and that means bodies which behave in a certain way, because, for Foucault, ‘the soul (one’s subjectivity) is the prison of the body’.

This explains why theory falters in the face of the ‘capture’ of individuals’ subjectivities, and their behaviour, by capitalism today. Biopolitical production here means that new ways of shaping the actions of human beings occur under capitalism, with the consequence that their very way of living reinforces capitalism all the time, ostensibly guaranteeing its perpetuation.

It is not difficult to understand what this means. In the first place biopolitical production means that people living today are in the process of being ‘produced’ in such a way that they can ‘adapt successfully’ to the way that capitalism functions today. Think of the manner that mainstream psychological counselling enables one to ‘cope’ with the demands of consumer society; and compare this to Lacan’s opposition (captured in the phrase ‘Against adaptation’) to mainstream psychology, which merely assists the subject to ‘adapt’ to an alienated and alienating society. If you don’t believe this, ponder the implications of the familiar exhortation, to ‘brand’ or ‘rebrand’ yourself; that is, deliberately turn yourself into a ‘commodity for sale’. Only people who have been thoroughly brainwashed by consumerist capitalism would fail to realise that this surrender to the cynical ‘anthropology of competitiveness’ reduces their human freedom to virtually zero. And yet, people seem to be quite happy to market themselves as commodities, blissfully unaware of the fact that they are participating in their own liquidation as ‘human’ beings capable of freedom of thought and action.

Secondly, think of the many courses on ‘compliance’ of some sort or other that employees are regularly subjected to. This is the way that capitalism rules – not through conspicuous fascist dictatorship, but via subtle invasion of people’s psyches, to rule them from within, as it were. What makes a mockery of those claims – on the part of Habermas, for instance – that the social sciences are ‘emancipatory’ (that is, that social scientific research is guided by the ‘interest’ to free people in society progressively), is the fact that people today happily ‘comply’ with, and assent to, their own biopolitical production into docile cogs in the machine of neoliberalism (the ‘Matrix?), which assimilates all that is personal to the domain of economic production.

This makes one realise what a misnomer neoliberalism really is, inscribing the word for liberty into it: consumers are only really free to turn themselves into exemplary subjects of capitalist production, beginning with themselves; ‘Shop till you drop!’ is a misleading metonymy of this way of living, because it turns our gaze away from ourselves towards consumerist behaviour. The victory of capitalism over the human spirit is almost – but not quite – complete; some of us are still holding out. As Lyotard reminds us in The Inhuman (1991), there is an ‘inhuman’ in every person that potentially resists all attempts at colonisation, including the neoliberal. But it is up to each person to activate this. After all, Foucault, too, champions the ‘resistance of bodies’ as a prerequisite for a human quality of living.

In Declaration (2012), a far more terse statement of their position than their trilogy, Hardt and Negri describe the subjectivities that are being biopolitically produced today – the ‘indebted’, the ‘mediatised’, the ‘securitised’, and the ‘represented’ – all of which are essential for the rule of neoliberalism to succeed. The first of these (the’ indebted’) is familiar to all of us, and the Occupy Wall Street movement is symptomatic of its effect on resisting bodies, that is, on eliciting resistance on the part of bodies. Think of the majority of young people today (even ones with university degrees), slaving away at ‘jobs’ with hardly any hope of being truly ‘independent’ one day, or even being able to have their own houses. Indebtedness is a very effective way of keeping people docile and controlled, as Deleuze also argued in Postscript to the Societies of Control.

The ‘mediatised’ include all of us, given our dependence on the media for information, and, importantly, for our actions, which are consequently ‘mediatised’. The ‘securitised’ also applies to us all, given our subjection to security searches at airports, to camera surveillance in shopping malls, but most importantly, in the sense of the imperatives of security inescapably being part and parcel of our subjectivities. The ‘represented’ is the saddest figure of them all, insofar as it confirms that most people today have become almost completely apolitical; after all, are they not ‘represented’ by their ‘representatives’ (who only really represent their OWN interests)? All in all, these four subjectivities not only mark the triumph of neoliberalism, but also the failure of theory – even ‘critical’ theory as represented by Habermas and others – to function as the effective basis for enlightened, emancipatory action.

This explains, finally, Hardt and Negri’s insistence, in Commonwealth (2009: 16), that it is not enough to think critically; one must learn to ACT critically, too, to be able to actualise the demands of freedom. Theory cannot guarantee such action, however. It can only prepare one for it, as Ian Parker has argued analogously in respect of psychoanalysis in his book, Lacanian Psychoanalysis – Revolutions in Subjectivity (2011). That is, a ‘revolution’ in subjectivity can occur in the clinic, but there is no direct connection between this and a social revolution outside the clinic. Just as the former can only prepare the subject for the latter by clarifying their relationship with power (today, with neoliberalism), so, too, theory can, at best, prepare one for critical, emancipatory ACTION against the Leviathan of neoliberal capitalism.

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