Decadence is having something of a cultural moment. The Decadent Society, a book by NYT columnist Ross Douthat, is slated to come out at the end of this month, and several high-profile reviews of it have begun to appear on the internet. One notable piece has been penned by Peter Thiel, published by First Things under the wonderfully time-slitting title of “Back to the Future”. For Thiel-watchers, the title and themes of the piece—beyond the cursory summarizing of Douthat’s argument—isn’t unfamiliar in the least. Thiel rehearses the well-worn template: the tempo of creative destruction has crawled to a trudging pace, the fantastical dreams of the 50s and 60s have been deferred, and a new renaissance is required. Douthat’s contribution (which closely align with arguments that Thiel has made elsewhere) is a fourfold matrix of decadence’s causes: “stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion)”.
One of the interesting things that I noticed that in the wake of this article, a series of tweets appeared that glimpsed the intersection between Thiel’s positions and those of Mark Fisher.
Similar observations have been made before, though perhaps not so directly. During one of the courses of Nick Land’s ‘Concept of Acceleration’ at NCRAP, there was a lengthy discussion on the formal similarities between Thiel’s understanding of the ‘heroic state’ and the program set out by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their Left-Accelerationist Manifesto—and lest we forget, Fisher played a fundamental role in the development of L/Acc through a series of blog exchanges that culminated in the 2010 ‘Accelerationism Event’ at Goldsmiths. I’ve recently pointed out in the first Industrial Policy Round-Up post(I’ll get back to these, I promise) that S&W’s L/Acc program also aligns perfectly with the structure of industrial policy as presented by advocates like Mariana Mazzucato—and I’d be remiss not to mention Vince Garton’s own arguments that a left-accelerationist economic government would resemble, in practice, something like South Korea’s industrialization program. Cue the recent interest in South Korean industrial policy, evidenced by a recent piece in Palladium and a Bloomberg Opinion article linking the nation’s cultural exports (like Parasite) to its economic program—all of which seems to add up to something.
Something else interesting to consider is that in the case of both Thiel and Fisher, a similar movement has been carried out: from an engagement with the ‘New Economy’ 90s (as an entrepreneur and investor, in the case of Thiel, and for Fisher as a culture producer-critic) to that of an epochal critique. Thiel, for instance dedicates a significant section to the New Economy—and its failure—in the opening chapters of Zero to One:
The Mosaic browser was officially released in November 1993, giving regular people a way to get online. Mosaic became Netscape, which released its Navigator browser in late 1994. Navigator’s adoption grew so quickly—from about 20% of the browser market in January 1995 to almost 80% less than 12 months later—that Netscape was able to IPO in August ’95 even though it wasn’t yet profitable. Within five months, Netscape stock had shot up from $28 to $174 per share. Other tech companies were booming, too. Yahoo! went public in April ’96 with an $848 million valuation. Amazon followed suit in May ’97 at $438 million. By spring of ’98, each company’s stock had more than quadrupled…
Dot-com mania was intense but short—18 months of insanity from September 1998 to March 2000. It was a Silicon Valley gold rush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of exuberant, often sketchy people to chase it. Every week, dozens of new startups competed to throw the most lavish launch party… Paper millionaires would rack up thousand dollar dinner bills and try to pay with shares of their startup’s stock sometimes it even worked. Legions of people decamped from their well-paying jobs to found or join startups. One 40-something grad student that I knew was running six different companies in 1999…
The NASDAQ reached 5,048 at its peak in the middle of March 2000 and then crashed to 3,321 in the middle of April. By the time it bottomed out at 1,114 in October 2002, the country had long since interpreted the market’s collapse as a kind of divine judgment against the technological optimism of the ’90s. The era of cornucopian hope was relabeled as an era of crazed greed and declared to be definitely over.
To counter the enthusiasm that almost leaps from each page, Thiel runs this narrative alongside a recognition of the stagnant conditions of the global economy: the early 90s recession, the painful shift towards a de-industrialized, service-oriented economy, the rise of populist political figures (Ross Perot), the East Asian financial crisis, Russia’s ruble crisis… and in addition to this, the sense of an idiosyncratic cultural malaise that has settled in: “whatever the cultural fascination with Nirvana, grunge, and heroin reflected, it wasn’t hope or confidence”.
Fisher (who also had harsh words for Nirvana, grunge and hedonic-reclining ‘slacker culture’) similarly painted a picture of a world split into two. In a text co-authored by Robin Mackay for the first issue of CCRU’s Abstract Culture zine (1997) titled “Pomophobia”, these two sides take the form, on the one hand, of postmodernism, and on the other, ‘technocapital’. In Fisher and Mackay’s schema, the ‘pomo’ acts as a shield against the disintegrative effects of technocapital—a Baudrillardian ‘reality script’ that halts the production of the New. “What is genuinely new will evade the pre-scripted categories – ‘the new Beatles’, ‘the new Punk’ – which have already neutralised any possible deviation from the already processed”. This sense of the new, it follows, is the byproduct of ‘synthetic culture’, a bottom-up arrangement of mutant subcultures spurred by insurgent technocapital’s irradiating glimmer.
…synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus… What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication.
This is effectively the same argument made by Sadie Plant; in her work on the Situationists, she privileged Debord’s theoretical construct of the Spectacle over later postmodern iterations such as Baudrillard’s hyperreal—and then came to argue that the technological transformations cascading across the leap from the 80s to the 90s was unmaking this very system. Fisher offered a more Baudrillardian read in Flatline Constructs (1999), which was effectively a book-length treatise on the positions staked out in “Pomophobia”. Interestingly, it’s here that the term ‘capitalist realism’ makes an early appearance, used to describe the “psychological and psychoanalytic” conditions that become interiorized in order to bring an end to what Baudrillard called the “primitive double”—in other words, “capitalist realism” designates the overwriting of old forms by secularized rituals and habits.
Incidentally, Fisher retained elements of this interpretation of in his work Capitalist Realism when he wrote that
The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects.. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts. Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself.
‘Capitalist realism’ thus becomes a bit of a shifting signifier here. By being identified with the elimination of older forms of life and their redeployment in new modes, it appears as something intrinsic to the whole of capitalist development—bringing to mind Marx’s identification of capitalism’s nihilism: “all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. At the same time, in Flatline Constructs it appears as synonymous with postmodernism, though this is easily reconciled if we take the ‘postmodern’ to embody something intrinsic to the whole of capitalism, existing alongside the modernist impulses (this is the position I’ve staked out here and here). By the time Capitalist Realism, it appears as a point in the postmodern epoch, representing the final, ultimate victory of this tendency above all other alternatives; namely, the Soviet Union. This implicitly aligns ‘capitalist realism’ with the 90s, as the historical where the Thatcherite-Reagan ‘there is no alternative’ became concretely instantiated. And indeed, Fisher over time came to regard the distinction between the ‘pomo’ and ‘technocapital’ not as antagonistic things, but as the single pulse of capitalist development. Here, ‘synthetic culture’ is re-imagined as a counter- or anti-capitalist force that is annihilated by capitalism’s reality principle; the goal, then, is the disengagement from capital’s abstract domination.
The emergence from the frenzied blur of the New Economy is driven home in a comment in a 2004 K-punk post titled “Freedom and Speedfreaks”:
I think we have to distinguish between phase 1 Ccru (basically pre-Digital Hyperstition) and phase 2 Ccru (ongoing, Now) I wd suggest that precisely because of that speed-out amphetamine frenzy… which was literally true in some cases and ‘abstractly’ true in my own – Ccru entered a state of katatonic undeath of almost zero-activity between 99 and 04 (there were sporadic break outs, but it could have looked as it the whole thing had dissipated as Ccru drones detached from the machine and became drained by Kaptial-Matrix… here’s a complex lock in between what it was possible to think in the 90s and the SF Kapital-cyberpunk relation. Kapital only allowed Ccru to think so far in the 90s, Strategically Fuzzifying the distinction between kapital and marketized anti-kapital, and SF and k-punk. Think the 90s bubble economy. But after the collapse of bubble economy (Kapital like many of its slaves is manic depressive) Kapital’s hold on culture has been decoded by distributed network cyberpunk activity (like this!).
It’s understandable why it was easy to be swept up in the whirlwind of the New Economy, even beyond the abundance of ‘easy money’ and imagery of an unlimited, cybernetic future. Consider the following graph of net domestic business investment relative to gross domestic product:
Here we can see a rising wave of investment corresponding to the classic dotcom—and what is notable is that it occurs within the context of a significant downtown in the rates of domestic business investment, having fallen across the 80s to the low-point of the early 90s recession. A similar pattern is revealed in the rate of profit measures offered by both Michael Roberts and Andrew Kliman:
This moment in history thus appears as the repudiation of a trend towards stagnation, which reaches back not only through the 80s but across the stagflation of the 1970s, which itself emerged from the crisis and breakdown of the ‘Fordist’ regime of capitalism and governance. As Roberts writes: “we can see that there is similar secular fall in the US rate of profit since 1945 but the rate of profit stays high in the 1960s and then plummets to a trough in the early 1980s before consolidating and even rising to the late 1990s”. Looking backwards at what has occurred in the subsequent years, the late 90s looks like a little oasis amidst a larger downturn, a point where an alternative future to what came before and what came after seemed both intelligible and real. This was the context for what Thiel described as a “time of hubris” where “people believed in going from 0 to 1”.
The growth of bubbles, as the neo-Schumpeterians have repeatedly emphasizes, is an intrinsic dynamic to capitalist development. When a wave of innovations come into existence, they attract investment capital, which generates a momentum, and then the fevered lift-off into self-compounding enthusiasm. Over time a chasm forms between the direction of the growing bubble and the conditions of real economy—what us Marxists would call a consequence of uneven development—which primes the conditions for the bubble’s inevitable burst. Such is the loop of creative destruction: the bad investments and irrelevant capitals are cleared away, making possible for the most efficient firms to rise to the fore.
Carlota Perez’s analysis of the dotcom bubble emphasizes several unique attributes of the late 90s bubble, the most important being what she calls “the bias towards finance”. In the first instant, the introduction of information-communication technology (the ‘backbone’ of the New Economy) did provide real economic growth; it was through these systems that globalization, as distinct from earlier phases of internationalization, was able to advance itself (not to mention its role in the transformation of the business firm itself, requiring deeper roles in information flows, aggregation and analysis). But this occurred in an environment already tending towards financialization, and it finance capital’s hegemonic role that propelled the bubble towards its delirious summit. There was in fact a blurring of financial and non-financial business interests: “many non-financial corporations bought into the financial frenzy and increased their purely financial investments, to an extent that an increasing portion of their profits came from capital gains or dividends”.
The analysis of the New Economy and its implosion tends towards the epochal critique: the conditions that made and broke ‘technocapital’ rapidly become primary to the party-hard atmosphere of the time. There’s a variety of ways one could track this hegemony of finance. One could go back to the crisis of Fordism’s final moments, when the ‘Nixon Shock’ of 1972 opened the floodgates for unstoppable financial speculations, or the 1980 ‘Volcker Shock’, where the Federal Reserve tripled interest rates, simultaneously accelerating America’s de-industrialization, plunging the third world into the debt crisis (paving way for the World Bank and IMF’s structural adjustment agenda), and consolidating the power of finance. There’s also the activities undertaken by Volcker’s protege, Alan Greenspan, to lower interest rates from 6.5% to 1% in a bid to ignite growth-led lending. Behind all of these moves, however, is the reality of a shift from an economy organized around ‘productive labor’ to one based on ‘unproductive labor’ (something that Fred Moseley has illustrated brilliantly in his The Falling Rate of Profit in the Postwar United States), corresponding to an overall derailing of industrialization into de-industrialization, and the fragile compensation for declining means of living by via debt mechanisms.
As evidenced by the initial graph above, this tendency towards financialization is matched by a reciprocal decline of overall investment, which in turn sinks the rate of profit. Capital in its most fetishistic form, the M-M’ loop, seems to slip out from the chamber imposed upon it by the law of value—but as the Dotcom bubble illustrated (and the Great Recession, to a much higher magnitude), there are real material limits to this escape.
In his 2011 National Review article ‘The End of the Future’, Thiel describes the dream that has been deferred by the stagnationist trend as that of the ‘post-industrial future’:
The economic future looked very different in the 1960s. In his 1967 bestseller The American Challenge, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber argued that accelerating technological progress would widen the gap between the United States and the rest of the world, and that by 2000, “the post-industrial societies will be, in this order: the United States, Japan, Canada, Sweden. That is all.”… We need to resist the temptation to dismiss Servan-Schreiber’s space-age optimism so that we can better understand how the consensus he represented could have been so terribly wrong…
There’s a direct line that runs from the concept of the ‘post-industrial’ future to the New Economy delirium. It emerged as a direct outgrowth from the concept of the ‘end of ideology’ of Daniel Bell and his expanded coterie of ex-Marxists, proto-neoconservatives and the late Fordist intelligentsia. This concept, later retooled and repdeployed by Fukuyama, took multiple forms according to who was promoting it, but the basic thrust was this: the march of history had reached its peak in ‘democratic capitalism’. Laissez-faire marketization had been replaced by monolithic corporations whose activities were governed by the Galbraithian technostructure, and the pitched battles over ideology was supplanted by a government led by specialists and experts. Below the infusion of these two domains was a population made flourishing by rising wages, job security, leisure time and material abundance. This was, in other words, not simply the projection Fordism’s fantastical self-image, but the very ideology of the technocratic New Class.
By the mid-60s, this picture began to change. In 1964, Bell was tapped by the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences to head up the Commission on the Year 2000. Modeled directly on the Macy Conferences—the interdisciplinary summits that aimed to cement cybernetics as something capable of assimilating the hard and soft sciences into a common frame with a shared language—and drawing researchers and scholars from the country’s top universities (including a young Zbigniew Brzezinski), the Commission’s goal to apprehend the ‘shape of things to come’ by examining the state of information technology and its trajectories. As Richard Barbrook recounts in his book Imaginary Futures, the Commission seized upon Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, with its prioritization of media technologies and anticipations of a ‘global village’, as its guiding star. Barbrook:
Taking their cue from Understanding Media, the Bell commission identified the three key technologies which would determine the future of humanity: computing, media and telecommunications… Inspired by McLuhan’s anticipation of the transforming power of the Net, the Bell commission eulogised the demiurgic role of information technologies. In their opinion, the full impact of electronic media upon humanity would only be felt when television had fused with computing and telecommunications. Believing that the synthesis of these three types of machines had become the subject of history, every advance in information technology was heralded as another step towards the information society… Like many of their peers in the US elite, the majority of the Bell commission never doubted that computers would one day evolve into sentient beings. They too looked forward to a future where factory labour would be carried out by robots, office jobs would be automated and routine management done by sentient mainframes.
Peter Drucker, the management guru, introduced in 1966 the concept of the “knowledge worker”. It too descends from Galbraith, who identified that among the key role of specialists in the technostructure is the coordination and application of information. Having been describing the organizational form of the high-industrial firm, these specialists existed in a sphere separate from that of the rank-and-file worker—but in Drucker’s formulation, these functions blur into the figure of the knowledge worker. This is nothing short but the presaging of a grand transformation, the rise of “new industries” that “will employ predominantly knowledge workers rather than manual workers”. By the time he published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society in 1973, Bell has transformed this into the idea of the “knowledge class”: “‘If the dominant figures of the past hundred years have been the entrepreneur, the businessman and the industrial executive, the ‘new men’ are the scientists, the mathematicians, the economists and the engineers of the new intellectual technology”.
This language still reflected the inheritance from Thorstein Veblen, James Burnham and Galbraith, reflecting the ideal of a society of administration carried out by specialists. This understanding of the post-industrial society would rapidly change, however. The futurist Alvin Toffler book-ended the stagflationist 70s with works on a post-industrial society that took emphasized more and more the role of entrepreneurs and consumers (and, eventually, their blurring in the ‘prosumer’). In The Third Wave (1980), Toffler gave a striking revision of Ernest Mandel’s three phases of capitalism into three civilizational stages, effectively transforming ‘late capitalism’ into the post-industrial society. For Toffler, whose roots were situated in the New Left of the 60s, emergent telecommunication platforms made possible the circumventing of cumbersome power structures by individuals themselves, leading, ultimately, to the ‘end of politics’. This “electronic marketplace”, as it came to be called, formed the ground for the New Economy, and was promoted by outfits like Wired, on the WELL (the Whole Earth ‘lectronic Link, the cyberspace spin-off from the New Left Whole Earth Catalog), and institutions like MIT’s Media Lab. Bell and other Cold War technocrats might have looked to a world of administration governing society, but by the time the end of history was reached, it was the entrepreneur that replaced the specialist, and the flexible, infotech-oriented fir that usurped the automatic factory. A frozen snapshot of this attitude remains crystallized in John Perry Barlow’s (Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cattle rancher and tech guru) 1996 ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’:
‘Governments of the Industrial World … I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. … You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our … unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions.’
Interestingly, the stamp of these influences shone not only through the emergent capitalism of Silicon Valley, but in government as well. Toffler became hooked up with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Republican Party-linked telecommunications lobbying organization that believed that ICT-based capitalism would “have the power to end all injustice and create a world where all are equally free to pursue life as entrepreneurs” (to quote Vincent Mosco’s The Digital Sublime). On the side of the Democrats, Al Gore’s 1994 speech at UCLA described the role of information technology in re-igniting competitive capitalism, and promised the coming of a “flexible and responsive government”. Such comments dovetailed Gore’s involvement with the Alliance for Redesigning Government, a “New Democrat” idea mill that grew from the vice president’s National Performance Review of 1993. In the Alliance’s primary policy papers, an outline for what this ‘flexible and responsive government’ might look like was offered:
Government should be 1. A catalyst… 2. Community-owned… 3. Competitive… 4. Mission-driven… 5. Results oriented… 6. Customer-driven… 7. Enterprising… 8. Anticipatory… 9. Decentralized… 10. Market oriented.
All these dreams have died a hard death, yet they persist, continuing to limp across the terrains of a still-moribund capitalism in the manner of what Lewis Mumford called a “cultural pseudomorph”. The result is precisely what Thiel describes in Zero to One, the situation where we inherit a world that exists worse off than that of our parent’s. “…in the late 1960s, they expected… progress to continue. They looked forward to a four-hour work week, energy too cheap to meter, vacations on the moon”. As he points out, “our surroundings seem strangely old”—except for “computers and communication”. Thus when he adds that “our challenge is to both imagine and create the new technologies that can make the 21st century more peaceful and prosperous than the 20th”, the implication is that ‘computers and communication’ are not themselves capable of amplifying real, binding growth. They remain relegated to a secondary position, ensuring even the dreaded spread of the “horizontal”, the 0, which engenders not a culture of innovation, but of repetition and memesis.
Fisher takes a similar point in Capitalist Realism, taking up Adam Curtis’ critique of the internet as generating a society “that is repetitive, parasitic and conformist”. And just as Thiel’s forces him into begrudgingly embracing the state, so too does Fisher’s critique. But while for the former this takes, first and foremost, the form of the state willing to engage in industrial policy (perhaps at the expense of all else), the latter’s is a strange ‘cultural’ state, the expression of a “Marxist supernanny” who shows to people the real desires that they have hidden from themselves. As Cocky has been outlining on his blog, Fisher’s position comes to look more and more like the neo-Gramscian concept of metapolitics—a strategy that, it must be said, can only truly be contextualized within the parameters of postmodernity.
…the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk. The Marxist Supernanny would not only be the one who laid down limitations, who acted in our own interests when we are incapable of recognizing them ourselves, but also the one prepared to take this kind of risk, to wager on the strange and our appetite for it. It is another irony that capitalism’s ‘society of risk’ is much less likely to take this kind of risk than was the supposedly stodgy, centralized culture of the postwar social consensus.
It’s yet another odd symmetry: the state that bears the risk of providing the groundwork for an industrial lift-off, and the state that bears the risk of a cultural renaissance.
7 thoughts on “Stagnation Conscious”
Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression
after 16 mins of chuck’s usual blather
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“Can artificial intelligence, in particular, machine learning algorithms, replace the
idea of simple rules, such as first possession and voluntary exchange in free markets,
as a foundation for public policy? This paper argues that the preponderance of the
evidence sides with the interpretation that while artificial intelligence will help public
policy along with several important aspects, simple rules will remain the fundamental
guideline for the design of institutions and legal environments. “Digital socialism”
might be a hipster thing to talk about in Williamsburg or Shoreditch, but is as much
of a chimera as “analog socialism.”
Click to access Simple_Rules_AI.pdf
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Interesting paper! I’ve glossed it a bit and definitely need to reread deeper, but off the bat I’m curious about the explicit reliance on Hayek as a means of torpedoing central planning issues outright. I’ve definitely written about the Hayekian knowledge problem before because knowledge problems are a real barrier and need to be grappled with — but I’m also wondering if it would be good to separate the Hayekian knowledge from knowledge problems as such. Hayek begins with some fundamental set of axioms that proceed outwards from his methodological individualism: individuals have preferences preferences give rise to market valuations, market valuations are the ‘motor’ of the economy, central planners don’t have access to the knowledge of individual preference, thus cannot plan an economy. The assumption that proceeds in the paper here is that not even with advanced machine learning and big data can access this sort of data.
The question I have is whether or not the beginning point that opens up this series of problems is in itself correct: do preferences of economic agents drive the economy, and are preferences ‘real’ in a constituent sense? From the most abstract level of Marxist theory the answer to the first question is no, and to the second is yes and no… preferences exist, but they’re not primary, and are often the reflection of the social conditions that generate them. On a more historical-empirical level, there is also the work of folks like Galbraith that show when mass production industrial systems reach a certain degree of development, the goal of the firm — or group of firms — ceases to be ‘responding’ to market dynamics and comes to ‘lead’ market dynamics, even to the point of creating them outright. This is coupled to the rise of advertising and consumer psychology, which scrambles Hayekian methodological individualism. And of course today this is pushed much much deeper.
Not bullish on central planning of course (one can imagine all sorts of scenarios, one being a split between central planning for necessities and markets for consumer goods), and in the case of planning economic development it’s certainly not a question of controlling the consumer goods market, but driving forward the foundation for that market to take off in the first place!
Another interesting problem, which is a bit tangential to this but I imagine might be up your alley, is this problem that we’re seeing in lower-level automation of governance functions where the automation effectively ‘black-boxes’ the governmental protocols themselves. A few things that touch on this:
Raises the specter, even if at only the level of the thought experiment, of would-be central planners locking themselves out from the central planning processes. Many things to consider…
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Philip Mirowski: Markets as Computer Programs in a Theory of Markets
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