Saturday, 1 August 2015

Utopia Then! (3) Cosmos

It’s important to bear in mind that neoliberalism as it emerges in the 70s is, from the start, a weird attempt at triangulation, it has to position itself both as a workable response to the failure of Keynesianism and the apparent success and allure of Communism.

Social Democracy has failed because of big government distorting the market, Communism will fail because after a certain developmental stage market liberalization must occur for a “mature” economy to thrive (and the later failure of the Soviet system will unleash a wave of told-you-say triumphalism.)

There’s much contemporary moaning about the loss of a cosmic vision on the left, that a reformulated Communism must have moon bases as a key element of its libidinal appeal, that with the end of actually existing Communism the space race is effectively decommissioned and Russian Cosmism consigned (along with Soviet Cybernetics) to the stockpile of fantasmatic futures, but in the 70s there is already a turn away from space exploration toward the development of IT and its commercialization. NASA funding progressively falls from a high of 4.41 percent of GDP in 1966 to 0.98 percent by 1975 to its current low of 0.49. In a sense the development of the P.C., the internet, the network and neoliberalism's vision of the market and the need for a new wave of profitable investments are deeply interrelated. From Cosmism, to Hayek’s Cosmos of the market, to the Internet as a Galaxy.

(Uncle Fred)

The Cosmic vision of neoliberalism might be called a virtualised Cosmism, the market as a sublime and a quasi-divine force, something ineffable woven into the fabric of the everyday. The Hayekian vision asks us to imagine ourselves as one twinking node in the vast, unmappable constellation of market decisions that increasingly encircles the earth, bringing a sense of religious awe to those who can glimpse something of the overall structure. Neoliberalism offers a re-enchantment of the world, your role as a consumer becomes primary, production is outsourced, the centres of capital focus on services and thereby commodities take on a magical property again, not just an agglomeration of dead labour time, but something that partakes of the absolute, re-sacralized. Several weeks ago, as an example, there was a libertarian MEP on Newsnight getting aggressively teary-eyed over a tin of beans, how seemingly mundane yet ultimately marvellous it was, this cheap comestible, the impossibly complex set of interactions and interrelations that produced it, the price mechanism, the global supply chains. Supermarkets become temples of wonder, credit is infinitely extended as prices fall, there are no factories or canneries to be seen for miles around. There is your Utopia, your magic kingdom, almost a land of Cockayne, the mythical land of plenty where fish jump out of the sea and land at your feet.

Neoliberalism has to offer itself as the harbinger of an earthly paradise, a real Utopia, an imminent Utopia, if we can only get rid of the government, if only we can purge those who are holding us back, who in preaching political democracy, prevent us from breaking through into a true democracy beyond party politics a truly democratized Capitalism in which, without any direct concern for my fellow citizen, without any distorting emotionalism or sense of social bonds I can be free at last to pursue my essentially selfish desires, with the bonus that, via the invisible hand, everyone will benefit. This an attempt to address the allure of communist forms of organization, essentially mass participation and radical democracy, the sublime deindividuation of collective utopian projects yet without losing a sense of Western individualism and reorient the drift away from materialism of the 60s.

That’s right, I am going to link that speech from Network. Again.

Like all systems, then, neoliberalism is caught up in its own fevered dream work, shifting between a disciplinarian “realist” and Utopian mode, and as it re-enchants it imposes new forms of hierarchy and discipline. There is the demand for a kind of absolute asceticism on the one hand, and for absolute indulgence on the other of the impulse to consume; greed is good. There is a kind a kind of anti-Prometheanism for the mass, man must submit himself to the market as before a Mao or Stalin, combined with a veneration of the entrepreneur as the world historical figure, creator of all value, the man who can sow and reap Schumpeter's gales of creative destruction.
In the Autumn of the system, when times are looking tough, we are told there is no other possibility, we must resist the sentimental notion that we can intervene in the market to create better outcomes. In this conception of the unfettered market as the ideal form of democracy there is an echo of Newspeak’s freedom is slavery and war is peace; helping only makes it worse, just as being selfless is to our own and other's detriment and planning means we will never achieve our objectives. There is a kind of infernal, gnostic stream within the neoliberal imaginary, a nightmare world in which all our humanist impulses will lead to their opposite effects, to a hell paved with good intentions, and in which to achieve our ends we must abrogate our deepest social and moral impulses, even perform their opposites. Thus we reach the situation in which it is necessary to act counter to one's morality in order to fulfill it, hence the split selves of neoliberalism, the torsion of psychic space in which nights of excess and days of rampant profiteering are the ways in which one fulfills one’s moral duty.

I don’t enjoy being a selfish, money-obsessed bastard you know, Nigel. I am doing it for everyone’s sake.

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