Fragmentation and Its Discontents: A Reply & Other Considerations

A nice, short response to my post on Subcultural Blues has been written by Rhett, which has highlighted a view places where I could clarify a few keys matters. He’s also stated that he wishes to keep his blog less heavy on theory and Marxism, so hopefully we can keep dragging him in that direction!

Rhett writes that my I “seem to be oscillating between two theses about fragmentation”, which can be roughly mapped across the base/superstructure divide. On the level of the base, fragmentation appears as a fundamental attribute of capitalism itself: an ongoing splintering of not just the relations between people in the context of production, but of the sites of production themselves (we might say this is the Landian thesis of capitalism, an inverse of the classical Marxian tendency towards concentration and centralization). At the level of the superstructure, fragmentation appears as the “ideological representation of the base structure of capitalism”. As Rhett notes, these two positions are not intrinsically contradictory (in the non-dialectical sense) to one another—but I worry, on the one hand, about drawing a direct 1:1 relationship between the productive base and what manifests in the superstructure (in proper Jamesonian form, it’s probably better to think of the base/superstructure as an active problem, a construct to begin from instead of being the destination of analysis), and on the other hand, about posing a stark line across the fragmenting horizon.

Looking back on ‘Subcultural Blues’, I think Rhett’s comments are warranted: I deployed several different functions or modes or fragmentation, without properly contextualizing both their continuities and discontinuities across the arc of capitalist development. In a broadest sense, we could perhaps isolate these into distinct pieces: fragmentation of the relations of production, social fragmentation, and individual fragmentation (or, more properly, atomization). Each of these are bound up with one another in various ways, but their operations shift in different historical configurations—and also tend to be conditioned or transformed by their opposition, tends towards concentration (in a productive sense) or massification (in terms of labor, social order and individual states).

In Marx’s theory, social fragmentation occurs through a changing relationship between social regulation and exchange value, as well as through the general state of technological and scientific development. In the most general form of the theory, it looks something like this: in pre-capitalist societies, exchange relations may exist, but they’re subordinated to social (or political) control, which serves to impose limits on their functioning in order to preserve stable ground and maintain a reproduction of that social order. Capitalism constitutes a sharp break in this process, with exchange coming to extract itself from forms of social regulation. This isn’t to say that regulation disappears per se, but itself becomes transformed, as a tool to reproduce social and productive relations on the basis of capitalism itself. How this came about is varied across time and space—Marx gives us plenty of different vectors to mull over, from the British enclosures to the ‘historical irony’ of credit institutions emerging from attempts to curb usury to colonialism—but the effect is to ‘melt’ the relations and ground of the pre-capitalist society, now awash in the flood of self-reproducing capital.

The counterpoint here is that society itself doesn’t dissipate, but is reconstituted in new forms: massified cosmopolitan societies, characterized by the jolting energetics of commerce, the feverish buzz of the crowd, the inauguration of great earth-shaking projects, the ascendancy of leaders under the archetypal forms of the Lawyer, the Scientist, the Statesmen, the Capitalist…

Underneath this sphere of commerce and bourgeois triumphalism, the domain of production, the sphere of labor. The fragmentation displayed here is a function of alienation, itself closely interwoven with the liberation of exchange-value from social regulation. The individual is cast into night, transformed into a proletarian proper, left with nothing to sell but their labor-power. This dispossession, at turns quiet and violent, is a leveler: labor-power is abstracted as life is stripped to its barest form. Yet this atomization and emptying-out has another counterpoint, where the individual is thrown back into a mass of a new kind, crowded together in the industrial combines that, as Marx argued, constituted a kind of pre-communist process of socialization. And beyond the factory walls, the swarming crowd of the surplus population, whose numbered ranks rise and fall in the ebbs and flows of the tendencies towards and away from concentration and centralization.

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The modernist avant-garde reflected these doubles in various ways, be in the discontinuous wholes, the totality of fragments, presented in cubism, or Dada’s wild embrace of the civilization’s flight down the whirlpool. Maybe it was Baudelaire who captured both sides the best, at once exploring modernity and modernization through a fragmented poetic form characterized by irony and distancing, while also speaking of the crowd as a sensuous thing, a quickly-moving slipstream into which one plunges themselves. Unlike Marx (or, at least the Marx of Lukacs), who privileged the proletariat as the figure who is capable of capturing the totality-in-process and could usher in, finally, the world where the contradictions are resolved into a collectivist Geimenschaft allowing the individual to realize themselves to the highest power, Baudelaire looked to poet as the figure who can be both alone and alive in the crowd:

Not everyone has the gift of taking the plunge into the multitude: there is an art to enjoying the crowd; and they alone can draw from the human race a feast of vitality on whom a fairy has bestowed, while they were in their cradles, a taste for disguise and masks, a hatred of home life and a passion for travel.

Multitude and solitude: equal and interchangeable terms for the poet who is active and productive. Those who are not able to people their solitude are equally unable to be alone in a busy crowd.

The poet benefits from an incomparable privilege which allows him to be, at will, himself and others. Like wandering souls in search of a body, enters, when he so desires, into the character of each individual.

From this point of view, it becomes different to see how postmodernity, with fragmentation (the decentered subject, the explosive shattering of grand narrative, proliferating subcultures and ‘micropolitical’ groupscules, etc) and massification (the hypercrowd, the persistence of mass culture, populisms, etc) marks any sort of break of modernity, and appears instead as its only its intensification. In some sense, this is true: the symptoms of passage between the two do not oscillate around a ‘pure’ break in capitalism, as the theorists of the post-industrial society often suggest—and Jameson himself suggests that if modernism can be thought of as culturally indexing a time of “incomplete modernization”, then postmodernism can be partially understood as being “more modern than modernism itself”.

But I think that Jameson gets himself in a bit of a knot when it comes to the question of discontinuities, breaks and mutations. He positions postmodernism as emerging fully in the 1970s, with scattered forewarnings appearing across the 60s. Yet to explain the shift in the base that engenders these superstructural changes (including the ‘collapse’ of culture into the base), he has recourse to the economic theories of Ernest Mandel, who outlined three iterations in the historical development of capitalism. These are:

  1. Competitive capitalism, coming into being in the early 1700s and lasting until 1870;
  2. Monopoly capitalism, lasting from 1870 until the Second World War;
  3. Late capitalism, emerging in the wake of the Second World War and persisting through today.

If postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, then its appearance in the 1970s would suggest a some-thirty year lag in its emergence. The flip-side is that Jameson also links postmodernism to the rise of new technologies, namely information technology—and indeed, these technological forms did largely get their launch from in the military-industrial laboratories, trickle into the mainstream economic arena by the 1960s, and undergo an explosion in the 1970s and 80s. The ‘take-off’ of ICT as a suggestive baseline for stabilizing the periodization of postmodernism would link it directly to the K-Wave periodization of Freeman and Perez, who argue for an exhaustion of a wave at the end of the 60s and a slow emergence of the next one, based on computing power and networks, through the 70s and 80s. This urges an abandoning of Mandel’s rather inflexible tripartite schema—but it still doesn’t get us closer to really grounding the distinct forms of fragmentation and massification that postmodern culture exhibits.

One key factor that Jameson does note, as does Mandel, is the growing centrality of financialization, which had enjoyed a similar hegemony before being displaced again by the industrial momentum of Fordism. Computerization and financialization walk hand-in-hand, with new information-communication mediums allowing greater coordination and exactitude in the management of globalized financial flows. Likewise, the ability for large-scale and rapid data analysis takes a central position in the daily operations of multinational firms, compelling robust and extensive corporate re-organization efforts that take them away from the organizational models that prevailed in the heyday of ‘high industry’.

But, as David Harvey argues, this is only part of the story. Financialization and computerization are marshaled in a global re-organization of the relations of labor of production, and it is in these domains that we find the truly new fragmentational trends. In the west, the great industrial masses are broken-up through de-industrialization, and the solid ground of proletarian employment is shifted into a floating world of ephemerality and uncertainty: service sector labor, sub-contracted labor, informal labor, temp work, neo-artisanal work, the flexible app labor of the gig economy, cultural production, small-batch and just-in-time production… Alongside these changes comes an increased focus on “geographical mobility”, ‘flexible’ labor markets, changing norms in education, family and civic life.

Despite this trend towards increasingly fragmented production (evidenced not only by the reinvigorated focus on small business capitalism, individual entrepreneurs and start-up culture, but also by the vital role of logistics and supply chain management) and labor, the trends towards concentration and centralization persist (albeit in new form). Harvey draws this out via a diagonalization between two positions. The first of these is that offered by Piore and Sabel in their 1984 work The Second Industrial Divide (a book that, interestingly enough, has been a significant influence not only on neo-mutualist anarchists, but also particular strains of post-workerist post-Autonomists). For Piore and Sabel, capitalism is dissolving into a dynamic, bottom-up economy driven by small businesses, co-operatives and neo-artisanal  outfits. This is the yet another iteration of the idea of a pure, direct line of fragmentation: the ‘macro-economy’ melting into the stigmergic networks of the ‘micro-economy’.

The other position that of critics who see in the hubbub about ‘flexibility’, ‘micro’-this and ‘micro’-that nothing more than the bluster of advertising: the stigmergic network as little more than capitalism’s self-image of itself. Looking back towards the New Economy 90s, where emboldened ideologues drove themselves straight into a bubble-burst while the riding the high of complexity theory and self-organization, this seems like a quite logical position to take. Harvey, by contrast:

The evidence for increased flexibility (sub-contracting, temporary and self-employment, etc.) is simply too overwhelming to make [these] counter-examples credible… Nevertheless, such criticisms introduce a number of important correctives in the debate. The insistence that there is nothing essentially new in the push towards flexibility, and that capitalism has periodically taken these sorts of paths before, is certainly correct (a careful reading of Marx’s Capital sustains this point)…

The third position… lies somewhere between these two extremes. Flexible technologies have not become hegemonic everywhere (but neither did the Fordism that preceded them). The current conjuncture is characterized by a mix of highly efficient Fordist production (often nuanced by flexible technology and output) in some sectors and regions (like cars in the USA, Japan or South Korea) and more traditional production systems (such as those of Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong) resting on ‘artisanal’, paternalistic, or patriarchal (familial), embodying quite different mechanisms of labor control. The latter systems have undoubtedly grown (even within the advanced capitalist countries), often at the expense of the Fordist factory assembly line…

In the present phase… it is not so much the concentration of power in financial institutions that matters, as the explosion in new financial instruments and markets, coupled with the rise of highly sophisticated systems of financial coordination on a global scale. It is through this financial system that much of the geographical and temporal flexibility of capital accumulation has been achieved. The nation state, though seriously weakened as an autonomous power, nevertheless retains important powers of labor disciplining as well of intervention in financial flows and markets, while becoming itself much more vulnerable to fiscal crisis and the discipline of international money.

Today, thirty years on, this picture has changed in some ways, and others not so much. The fracturing and ‘flexiblization’ of labor markets has expanded considerably in many regions (see, for examples, the increased precarity and necessity of geographical mobility for job-seekers in the west, and the ballooning of the informal sector on a global scale). In other spaces, artisanal labor and workshops have been rebounded into top-down, centralized organizations (China’s Shenzhen is exemplary here, having made the evolution from a largely bottom-up economy of workshops and street markets to a well-oiled ‘innovation cluster’ machine), while all these dispersed and contradictory compositions have become commonly linked together via multi-sector monopolies like Amazon and other ‘platform’ institutions. One important shift that Harvey mentions in passing, from “direct corporate planning” to “market coordination”, has undergone another mutation, with both direct planning and market coordination having been swallowed up into the algorithmic black boxes deployed by both the major corporations and the state.

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One key aspect of all this that Jameson and Harvey have missed in their accounts on postmodern (one that they can be forgiven for, of course, by want of when their respective accounts were penned), is that of the profound stagnation that has occurred across this same period. For reasons that I’ll save for another blogpost, it seems to me that these mutations in the capitalist mode of production have by and large been unable to sustain the sort of explosive, convulsive and open-ended growth witnessed in early industrial epoch. In the parlance of Peter Thiel, we could say that the ‘post-Fordist’ era—identified by Robert Brenner as being one of a “long downturn” (though I disagree with his assessment of this downturn’s roots)—fails to make the movement from 0 to 1, from horizontality and mimesis to verticality and innovation. It is instead locked in a downwards-moving trap.

It’s in this space that we find the reason for the surge of anomie: the double-foreclosure, on the one side, through the blocking of this era’s promise of the absolutely deterritorialized consumer society, vertigo of the hyperspace and the hypercrowd. And on the other side, the continued breakdown of stability, of any possible crowd. It brings us to, alternatively, the visions of unending empire that have flashed into existence, and the neo-industrial push of varied political factions.

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