TOWARD A BREAKDOWN OF THE CAPITALIST SUBJECT?
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 3 Oct 2009
Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval | Le Monde
Perhaps the economic catastrophe is dissipating the most glaring illusions about the self-regulating market, making global capitalism’s doctrinarians a bit less arrogant, provoking the spectacular conversions of some "leaders" who would urgently like to make us forget their previous blindness.
But the catastrophe has not yet brought about the blockage of all the apparatuses, all the discourses, all the policies that constitute the present mode of governing men and societies. This mode has a name: capitalism. To speak of it as did Michel Foucault, its logic consists of a certain "driver of behaviors," of a way of inciting subjects to behave according to the company model and the general norm of competition.
By everywhere establishing competitive situations between subjects, by inciting them to become the winners of a universal competition, by imposing controls and surveillance and, above all, by pushing subjects to self-control by making performance the ruler of each person’s life, this system has the impact of constructing a new subject, a "neo-subject," as some psychoanalysts call it.
Such a normative logic, in fact, relates just as much to one’s relationship with oneself as to one’s relations with others. It is as subjective as it is political. That’s what makes it so strong and difficult to erase.
Whether one considers the department head who takes herself for a "modern manager," the employee subject to the guilt-inducing procedures of the "evaluation," the consumer whose desires are harnessed by the hope of ineffable joys acquired at a good price, the student invited to confuse the progress of knowledge with the individual growth of "human capital," it’s every subjectivity that, from some specific angle, is led to conform to the imperative of no limitations. To exceed oneself, to go beyond one’s bounds, such is the maxim of capitalist subjectivity.
Capital accumulation has become the principle of individual operation, as though it were necessary for existence to be indexed to the life of finance, as though each individual must regard himself as a "self-company": the "always more" hoped for by consumers (enjoyment) answers the "always more" required of workers (performance). Still worse, enjoyment of the self is supposed to be experienced by smashing all limits. So, it is appropriate to speak of a performance-enjoyment apparatus.
Three decades of capitalist government deliver this lesson: No extension of capital is possible without the transformation of man. Consequently, it’s a matter not only of proletarianizing populations to the ends of the earth, of increasing the inequalities between rich and poor, but also of "dynamizing" subjects by making every employee a calculating, maximizing individual, an "entrepreneur of one’s self." Mrs. Thatcher, faithful to the Puritan ethos, found the formula: "Economics are the method, the object is to change the soul."
Changing the soul is a fine project that requires multiple disciplines to effect. The general diffusion of the techniques of individual quantitative evaluation, the boom in "personnel development" methods, the omnipresence of marketing in human relations, the promotion of competitive sports as a model for one’s relationship to oneself, the submission of politics to the logic of management: these apparatuses make a system and tend to impose a certain form of existence.
Will the financial and economic crisis stop this formidable remodeling of societies or will it lead to its intensification in exchange for a few corrections in the rules of finance? No one can yet say. For the powers that be, the line is, in any case, clear: Although the crisis requires emergency measures that are outside the dogma, it is also the opportunity to accelerate "reforms" in every domain and especially in public action, the lever for changes to come.
If this crisis, as long and deep as it promises to be, does not put an end itself to capitalist logic, it creates a new situation by changing the conditions for confrontation.
The battle against increasing precariousness and poverty, the rejection of the conception of others as competitors, disgust for the commercialization and financialization of daily life, individual or collective acts of disobedience against the order of performance in companies: The "logical revolts" of the newly poor confronts the new impoverishment of populations, new forms of transversal resistance confront the meticulous surveillance of behavior and absurd accountancy of relationships.
When entrepreneurial logic is imposed [in France], professionals in the institutions of education, health care, justice and culture coordinate with one another; researchers and academics dissent en masse. Are we not moving towards the exhaustion of the "neosubject’s" drivers? What good is this forced and simulated "success," this so-boring race for riches, this life in which the individual – reduced to the miserable condition of "human capital" ñ self-exploits and devours himself?
The crisis presents each of us with the radical division of choices for existence; for each of us, it poses the old and always-decisive ethical and political question: What is a good society to advance; what is a good life to lead? As always in such cases, the answer is not written anywhere.
Pierre Dardot is a philosopher. Christian Laval is a sociologist. They both lead the "Question Marx" think tank and have published "La Nouvelle Raison du monde" ["The World’s New Argument"] (La DÈcouverte, 498 p. 26 Ä).
Translation: Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.
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