Neoliberalism, Modernity and Panic of Entropy: Undoing the Knot of the Anthropocene?

When we are not elucidating the fact that the reality of humanity in the second decade of the 21st Century has literally become sci-fi, we can ponder that neoliberal common sense implies hostility to caring about others and to contributing to collective well-being and is therefore against public schools, social security, immigration and to public institutions in general. It also means that governments now function to create conditions for private interests to maximize wealth, because neoliberal common sense believes that profits and economic growth will trickle down from the top and that eventually everyone will profit as well. If the trickle down of riches from the top fails and inequality remains or worsens, then neoliberal common sense preaches that the cause is the personal failing of disadvantaged individuals and communities suffering. As a result, hoards of economic refugees or what I prefer to call “redundant populations” (which include dispossessed originary peoples, climate change and war refugees as well as illegal immigrants everywhere and the pauperized and the global unemployed working class) have been emerging throughout the globe. Aside from existing under bare surviving conditions, the redundant population is the backside of a phenomenon I have observed and that has been described by Rana Dasgupta as a symptom of how now sympathy and solidarity in human beings are blocked in one direction and emerged in another: in Delhi as in Mexico City, many privileged women or women from the richest families treat both members of the redundant populations and their inferiors with fear and contempt and yet devote their spare time to caring for stray dogs: from collecting food and blankets for them, to taking them to the vet when they are sick, going through great troubles to find adoptive families for them.1Rana Dasgupta, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi (London: Penguin, 2017), p. 273.

Something that contributes to invisibilize the ordeal of redundant populations is the myth about the free market, which apparently gives more choices to consumers. Rather, the opposite is the case: we may have the choice between two cars from two different brands and qualities, but we cannot choose between buying a car and using public transportation, for instance, which is more efficient and could contribute to stopping carbon emissions. The problem is that investment in better infrastructure for public transportation needs decisions to be made by a participatory society but our neoliberal (dismembered, alienated) societies, believe that market freedom alongside the privatization of everything are the solution to all our problems. By now, the steps that are taken towards privatization are familiar (and be aware citizens of newly neoliberalized economies!): first, the public service is de-funded so it stops working. In Mexico it is happening as we are told by standardized testing that schools are not working very well, while teachers and the SNTE (the teachers’ union) are being lynched in the mass media. Eventually, some kind of privatization will be accepted as it has been in the case of Telmex (telephone services), CFE (electricity), Pemex (Oil extraction), even water, with the Korenfeld Law promoted by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, which would allow foreign transnational companies to employ water and water flows for fracking and mining without public consultation or accountability. Not only education and former public infrastructure, services and the commons are reconverted to maximize profits, but market worship has become the destiny of representational, parliamentary politics. Donald Trump’s presidency embodies the fact that the wealthy are not tolerating market discipline for themselves and that the liberalization of markets is used to justify current power relationships. In the meantime, corporate culture has spread advertising worldwide as a recipe for richness while announcing a new kind of scarcity: that we are not fundamentally adapted to the world we inhabit, and that adaptation (as technological advance) would enable imagining new, hybrid forms of capitalism that could provide inspiration, well-being, betterment to everyone, everywhere; it even promises, through geoingeneering, to curve climate change.2Dasgupta, p. 41. These might be the reasons why the evident malfunctioning of capitalism imaged and denounced by documentary filmmaking, contemporary art, mass media, etc. are never painted as structural necessities. A logic is definitely at stake here. But how does the logic work? The mere existence of redundant populations is ignored and invisibilized by the new economy of absolute global capitalism and by the common sense that there seems to be no possible way of imagining different ways for organizing things besides saving oneself. How is the structure of capitalist absolutism maintained and globalized taking us to the point of environmental collapse?

It could be argued that the global upsurge of authoritarian and xenophobic far-right politics (by Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, evidently Donald Trump, etc.), as well as the exemplary prosecution and punishment of whistleblowers providing information about the obscure workings of the global political, corporate and oligarchic elite, are necessary to keep the structures that maintain absolute capitalism in place. Global authoritarianism and Donald Trump’s cabinet of billionaires, represent the fact that the people who already possess an absolutely obscene share of the planet’s wealth are determined to keep on grabbing.3Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough, p. 48. And what made possible the ascent of Trump to power, following Naomi Klein, is the fact that Trump is a Superbrand that represents the ultimate boss, a guy who is so rich that “he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants and to whomever he wants (including grabbing whichever woman he wants, by whichever body part he wants).”4Naomi Klein, p. 79. In this way, Trump embodies absolute capitalist success: his personal wealth and his quest for riches, no matter at what price, including destroying all that is public, collective, and empathic, are the main components to his brand.

April 2017 Cover for The New Yorker, “Broken Windows” by Barry Blitt

In this regard, Trump is the white, rich, greedy misogynist incarnation of absolute evil and threat to the American multicultural values that were projected onto the neoliberal globalized social tissue. These liberal values are being defended by the Hollywood guild, who has launched a campaign to denounce and lynch (see this years’ Golden Globe Awards) abusive powerful white men (but not Trump), and has given the 2017 Oscar to best movie to The Shape of Water. The film by Mexican Guillermo del Toro is a narrative set in a fantasy world set in Cold War era paranoia about a powerful white guy who is keen on destroying a threatening Other, a beast from a foreign country who fails to communicate in English considered to be a valuable object of study and potential asset in the race against the Soviets. The evil white bureaucrat grabs ass and rapes whenever the opportunity arises. An army of underprivileged individuals: a deaf woman, her black co-worker and gay roommate will fight and eventually defeat the white guy and save the monster. In a way, del Toro’s film and the Trump phenomenon evidence the nature of our contemporary sci-fi reality: politics and diplomacy are being trashed in the public sphere and in reality, while the entertainment industry is the last bastion of liberal values denouncing abusive white power at the spectacular and symbolic but not at the institutional or organizational levels.

Therefore, as Hollywood (and the culture industry in general) is the last bastion of liberalism, power manifests itself as overtly offensive and incarnates the absolute evil of intolerance through racist and misogynist discourses. Last November, at the United Nations Climate Summit in Bonn, California Governor Jerry Brown told indigenous protesters demanding to stop fracking in their lands: “Lets put you in the ground.”5Mandy Mayfield, “California Gov. Jerry Brown to protesters during climate speech: ‘Let’s put you in the ground’” Washington Examiner, November 11, 2017 available online: https://washex.am/2ytHp5D The demise of tolerance, inclusivity and the new identitarian essentialisms are operating not against liberal multiculturalism within the sphere of Spectacle, but as a public justification of social Darwinism at a global scale. At the same time, a new neoliberal global cartography beyond socialist internationalism has been established based on the competition of everybody against everybody toward “market success.” Under this naked version of absolute capitalism, it has ceased to make sense to think about the world as divided into First and Third; rather, we are seeing modernized pockets of privilege and cultural sophistication coexist with enclaves inhabited by “redundant populations.” This sector of the population has differential access to healthcare, citizenship, debt, education and jobs; some of them inhabit “zones of sacrifice,” which, by many accounts, are the contemporary manifestation of coloniality. These zones are inhabited not only by communities surviving with the toxic load of our systemic need to consume fossil fuels undergoing slow violence6See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2013)., but their commons and sustainable autonomous forms of life are being destroyed in the name of well being and development. Moreover, their destruction is de facto sustaining the privileges of people living in modernized enclaves who are denying while justifying their annihilation under the logic of development and inclusion in the global markets oblivious to global warming and to the failure of climate change politics.

According to Naomi Klein, in four years, the earth will have so radically changed by all the gases emitted by our fossil fuel economy that our chances of averting irreversible catastrophe will have dramatically diminished.7Naomi Klein, p. 150. Artic sea-loss, ice-sheet collapse, ocean warming, sea-level rise, the extinction of an array of species will be permanent. While politics has been reduced to spectacular liberal multiculturalism and to lynching bad white guys in power (except Trump), the majority of global citizens are oblivious that climate change can only be dealt through global collecting action. For instance, by boycotting corporations and by demanding investment in public infrastructure and alternatives to the fossil fuel economy. The question that remains and that is inextricably linked to the interrogation I posited above about the instauration and perpetuation of the absolute capitalist status quo is: What is it that maintains populations oblivious to the urgency of action before climate change, that enables ever-expanding consumption and the way in which we are measuring economic progress? Is it the hedonistic “just do it” mandate, the lack of a collective vision of a future, apocalyptic doom engrained in our religious unconscious? Because from the point of view of neoliberal common sense, the “malfunctioning” of capitalism is indeed understood as contingent perturbations and structural necessities that can be fixed. This is a worldview based on evidence and empiricism underlying technocracy (as opposed to faith or ideology): a pragmatic belief in data, statistics and technology. This neoliberal common sense is the reason is why explanations about the workings of power relations within neoliberal societies as traditional ideologiekritik are no longer useful. Instead of critique, we must therefore investigate what is it that maintains this worldview as common sense. For instance, one of the pragmatic beliefs that enable the expansion of consumption and how we measure progress is grounded on the way in which we inhabit our environment, which is increasingly mediated by technology (as design and technocracy) as interaction with other humans and nature dramatically diminishes. A recent example that comes to mind is the extreme automatization of stores where sensors and AI have replaced cashiers and shoppers who complete their transactions with their Smartphones. Pioneered by Amazon Go, there is now global race to automate retail stores.8See: Nick Wingfield, “Retailers race Amazon in high-tech push for automated shopping,” The Star, April 2, 2018 available online: https://bit.ly/2N8mz2g

I came across a video by chance in YouTube back in 2009 titled: Das Handwerk. It turned out to be a spot of a German publicity campaign that seeks to give visibility to manual and artisanal handwork. As we know, in the so-called “developed” countries, most of the labor force is devoted to immaterial or cognitive work (management, commerce, services, affective labor, creativity). In turn, manual labor (also known as “cheap labor”) is conformed by a mass of immigrants in developed countries, while most of industrial production has been delegated to “Third World” countries for at lest two generations. Therefore, manual labor – or the link that exists between production and consumption –, as it is done “by others, elsewhere,” has been made invisible in the “First World.” The Das Handwerk video seeks to raise consciousness about the relationship between production and everyday life, and thus shows a world in which manual labor gradually disappears. The narrative is centered on a couple: he sits at his home office in the typical post-fordist setting that eliminates the distinction between living and working space and work and leisure time, while she is walking the streets of a German city. Horrified, they both see how a world “without handwork” (that ranges from masonry to carpentry to industrialized objects, to craft, to high culture, to electricity, etc.) slowly begins to disintegrate, in a similar way in which the world and humans disintegrate in the science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). The film is an adaptation of the 1951 film with the same title based on Harry Bates’ 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master.” The most recent version replaces the Cold War threat of nuclear warfare with the menace of humans’ environmental damage to the planet. In the fiction, an object moving toward the earth with the power to destroy all life on earth is discovered. It turns out to be a spherical spaceship driven by an alien sent to talk to the Earth’s leaders about saving the Earth. The military shots the alien and from the ship emerges GORT, a robot that transforms itself into a swarm of insect nano-machines that replicate as they consume every man-made object that crosses their path. The alien stops the swarm and saves humanity at the cost of electrical activity on Earth, that is, the modern human way of life. The manner in which the world disintegrates in the film is similar to Das Handwerk, as the couple gathers on the street to witness the disintegration of civilization due to the disappearance of manual labor and technique (not on electricity, as in the movie). In the apocalypse in Das Handwerk, screws fall loose, documents fly out from their cabinets, metals melt, buildings shrivel, shoes become dust, buildings and entire streets disintegrate, until the couple finds itself trapped in a pre-modern world. This new world is more like debris of a bombarded city than a natural environment. Without shelter and naked, rain begins to fall as they make futile attempts to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together.


Aside from demonstrating modern humanity’s lack of skills to survive without technological mediation, the logic behind the spot is related to contemporary ideas about bounty and wellness linked to “development” and “progress.” These are the concepts at the basis of neoliberal common sense that sustain absolute capitalism and that justify the expansion of consumption as the measure of economic progress. Furthermore, embedded in the notions of “development,” “growth” and “betterment,” there is an attempt to camouflage the battle modern humanity wages against entropy in the name of (individual) well being and which feeds absolute capitalism. An essay about travel in cruise ships by David Foster Wallace comes to mind. For the writer – as for Jean-Luc Godard in Film: socialisme (2010) – cruise ships are literal embodiments of capitalism, in as far, capitalism’s use of technology is geared at making humanity’s everyday life more comfortable and simple, by diminishing manual labor through creating tools that mediate between humanity and nature. Foster Wallace writes that from the point of view of cruise-ship travel:

“The ocean itself turns out to be one enormous engine of decay. Seawater corrodes vessels with amazing speed –rusts them, exfoliates paint, strips varnish, dulls shine, coats ships’ hulls with barnacles and kelp and vague and ubiquitous nautical snot that seems like death encarnate […] It is no accident Megaline’s ships are so white and clean, for they’re clearly meant to represent the Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over the primal decay-action of the sea. The Nadir seemed to have a whole battalion of wiry little Third World guys who went around the ship in navy-blue jumpsuits scanning for decay to overcome.9David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” Harpers Magazine (January 1996) available online: https://bit.ly/1Oj0z4d

The mission of the capitalist use of technique and labor is therefore to overcome the unpleasantness of decay caused by nature, while the modern vacation on board of the cruise ship is conceived a fantasy over death and decay through hard work: the Third World workers and the guest’s hard work in having fun. Nature’s entropy – as a burden to humanity – is therefore what technological instrumentalisation is geared at. The gap opened between man and nature by progress and according to the current logic of accumulation (and to Frankfurt School critique of technology as such)10See: Andrew Feenberg, “Marcuse or Habermas: Two Critiques of Technology” Inquiry 39, Vol. 1, 1996, pp. 45-70., is made evident by Das Handwerk. But perhaps this separation is the reason why modern man’s apocalypse is not catastrophe derived from climate change, but having to face nature without tools and technique to dominate it. The dogmatic opposition between technology and nature that sustains the narrative of the video (and neoliberal, capitalist common sense), however, reduces technology to a mechanism to control and manipulate nature. Perhaps it would be more fruitful today to conceive technology and technological uses differently. For instance, Gilbert Simondon argues in his book “Existence of technical objects” (1958) against the reduction of technology (which for him ranges from a hammer to a computer) to an utilitarian function. For him, technology is first, an ensemble and second, a process of invention and it is thus creative. In that way, his notion of technology includes the relationships between tools, machines and mankind applied to given environment. Instead of alienating us from the natural world (as Das Handwerk shows), Simondon conceives technology not as an object of consumption but as the production of networks of complex relationships that exceed utilitarian processes. Rather, than merchandise (i.e., a Smartphone), technology for Simondon is a conceptual schema that sustains the application of technique as handwork. The developmental narrative of Das Handwerk, moreover, fetishizes manual work and technology, curiously in a society in which immaterial labor predominates and in which handwork is invisibilized by deterritorialisation or racialization. One of the campaign’s slogans of which Das Handwerk is part of states: “Die kurze Geschichte des Handwerks: Rad erfunden, Pyramiden gebaut, Mars erkundet, Abfluss repariert.” (A short history of manual labor: discovery of the wheel, building the pyramids, conquest of Mars, pipe repair). The slogan reaffirms the fantasy of man as absolute master of the universe with economic growth and progress in his hands. Development, however, has proved to be unsustainable due to its high energetic, economic, environmental and human costs.

Das Handwerk was made around the time of the global financial crisis of 2008-09, at the same time as “décroissance” or ungrowth was posited as a political goal advanced by French Anthropologist Serge Latouche and made operative by a community of settlers to the mountains of Cévennes in France. They migrants were not Luddites and they sought to ameliorate their lives for themselves and their children; they were artisans, artists, social workers, translators, activists and many had prepared themselves for their life in Cévennes training as farmers or learning how to make cheese or bread.11Eric Dupin, “La décroissance, une idée qui chemine sous la recession” Le Monde Diplomatique, Août 2009, disponible en ligne: https://bit.ly/2yIOMav But aside from small experiments like this and originary peoples’ autonomy exercises in Latin America, such as the Zapatistas, it has become clear that contemporary society is not prepared to “ungrow.”

This is due to the fact that the organisation of contemporary society is based on the idea of endless expansion, consumption and PIB growth. The modern soul has been modeled with concepts such as privatization, endless satisfaction, the association between richness and happiness and consumption power. The collective psyche is built not on sensual pleasure but on the pleasure of possessing and acquiring instruments and prosthetics to “better” our forms of life. And yet, environmental crisis pushes us to redefine human progress differently than the blind trust into science and technique and technology. Militants and philosophers of décroissance propose a form of life more simple and richer in sense; the bringing into question of growth appears as a logical consequence of the double economic and ecological crisis shaking the planet. But while the frame of the State appears more and more obsolete to further change and to gear at collective well-being, the Silicon Valley elite’s interest in citizenship and buying property in New Zealand for the eventuality of some kind of systemic collapse scenario are symptomatic of a worrisome trend. The world’s oligarchy has started to seek “apocalypse retreats” where they can have access to space, clean water and other resources, especially after Trump’s election.12Mark O’Connell, “Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand,” The Guardian, 15 February 2018, available online: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/15/why-silicon-valley-billionaires-are-prepping-for-the-apocalypse-in-new-zealand And now we can go back to pondering about contemporary reality as sci-fi, and what the consequences begin to look like.





Irmgard Emmelhainz, 2018



References   [ + ]

1. Rana Dasgupta, Capital: The Eruption of Delhi (London: Penguin, 2017), p. 273.
2. Dasgupta, p. 41.
3. Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough, p. 48.
4. Naomi Klein, p. 79.
5. Mandy Mayfield, “California Gov. Jerry Brown to protesters during climate speech: ‘Let’s put you in the ground’” Washington Examiner, November 11, 2017 available online: https://washex.am/2ytHp5D
6. See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2013).
7. Naomi Klein, p. 150.
8. See: Nick Wingfield, “Retailers race Amazon in high-tech push for automated shopping,” The Star, April 2, 2018 available online: https://bit.ly/2N8mz2g
9. David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” Harpers Magazine (January 1996) available online: https://bit.ly/1Oj0z4d
10. See: Andrew Feenberg, “Marcuse or Habermas: Two Critiques of Technology” Inquiry 39, Vol. 1, 1996, pp. 45-70.
11. Eric Dupin, “La décroissance, une idée qui chemine sous la recession” Le Monde Diplomatique, Août 2009, disponible en ligne: https://bit.ly/2yIOMav
12. Mark O’Connell, “Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand,” The Guardian, 15 February 2018, available online: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/15/why-silicon-valley-billionaires-are-prepping-for-the-apocalypse-in-new-zealand

Discussion

Un commentaire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *