In advance of the workshop at Mess Hall I’m posting a text from the Technopolitics group at The Next Layer (you have to sign in for access). A seminar organized by Armin Medosch will also be held in Vienna on the first weekend in March. The point is to understand the process of long-term social change whose onset is marked by the major events of the last decade. Anyone interested in these themes can contact me.
1. Technopolitics describes the influence of social, governmental, economic and cultural factors on industrial development, and vice-versa. In the history of industrial capitalism we can distinguish at least five successive technopolitical paradigms, originating in particular places at particular moments, sparking innovations and rivalries, gaining in capacity to structure society, then losing that capacity in a phase of decline until they are finally replaced by another paradigm. The full historical development of a given paradigm constitutes a period or era, as seen from a particular hegemonic center or from one of its many “edges” (devalorized class, cultural or geographical positions). The periods of technopolitical development are our basic units of study. Viewpoints from the edges are the basis of our critique.
2. In each of the periods a set of “lead technologies” is associated with particular work processes and social relations of production (that is, capital-labor relations), as well as specific modes of financing the fixed-capital investments and marketing the finished products. The central technologies and organizational forms take on a pace of production-distribution-interaction-innovation that helps define the rhythm of an entire era. But the interesting thing are the interruptions, the bifurcations. Moments of crisis in social relations and in finance can be read as turning points in the class struggle, but also as episodes in the rivalry between different interest groups, industrial or financial sectors or regional alliances of capitalists (eg continental blocs). One of the big questions for our approach is whether geographical divides, cultural inventions and perhaps even scientific breakthroughs can be seen as effective forces what the existing Marxist interpretations of cycle and crisis have mainly analyzed as class struggle.
3. Each paradigm extends its characteristic social relations and its modes of financing and marketing outwards from its points of origin to attain a maximum geographical scale, which includes some countries and regions in a hierarchical order and leaves other countries and regions partially or totally out of the circuits of exchange (as more or less lawless peripheries subject to “primitive accumulation,” or as battlegrounds). The dynamics of geographical extension brings geopolitics to the fore, and demands that inter-state relations be analyzed in direct connection with the relations between classes and fractions of capital. This means that to understand how a productive paradigm develops in a given nation we also have also to define the changing nature of the state, its legitimacy and characteristic forms of governmentality, and its position in the inter-state system at any given moment. And in the contemporary period we have to go further: we have to define how a productive paradigm unfolds with respect to the transnational state functions that characterize globalized capitalism.
4. The duration of each period seems to follow a roughly similar sequence of phases, including a tumultuous moment of financial crisis in the middle of its development and another phase of saturation and decline at the end. Over the two centuries of industrial capitalism these periods have typically lasted from 45 to 60 years, following a wave-like pattern of fluctuation first identified by Kondratiev. However, the Kondratiev cycles by themselves are merely formal, they explain nothing of any value. Rather they ask us to specify, not just the “success” of a particular technological tool-kit, but above all the full set of class struggles, cultural upheavals, inter-capitalist rivalries and inter-state conflicts whose temporary resolutions give consistency to each phase. And they also ask us to find out what changes irreversibly with the end of each era, such that the underlying pattern of capital accumulation can never be the same again.
5. So let’s get specific. The technopolitical paradigm of assembly-line production that originated in the US in the first decade of the 20th century, based on the lead technology of the automobile, was marked by a particularly barbaric first phase culminating in sweeping class struggles, financial crises and terrible inter-state conflicts (1929-45), but also by an extremely coherent resolution of class, inter-capitalist and inter-state conflicts during the maturity phase (the postwar boom). This resolution or “regulation” of assembly-line production involved the redefinition of the working classes as the key consumers of industrial products, or, in Keynesian terms, as sources of “effective demand” supported by welfare-state financing. Broadcasting technologies permitted not only the massive stimulation of desire for product lines, but also the installation of feedback loops based on the statistical measurement of consumer choice (Neilsenism). Major increases in the provision of education, leisure time and other entitlements to subordinated groups gradually brought changes to the cultural systems of the developed countries, crucially transforming gender roles and to some degree curtailing the preeminence of historical bourgeois aesthetics with its swings between vanguard modernism and nostalgic imitation of the aristocracy.
6. The social/cultural crisis of 1968 and the long economic downturn of the 1970s put an end to the capacity of assembly-line production to shape society through a consumption norm centered on the automobile. It revealed the continuing importance of labor struggles in the developed economies, as well as the new agency of former peripheries within the global economy. It also showed that in a moment of crisis, the stabilizing role of programmed mass consumption and welfare-state entitlements becomes a “cultural contradiction of capitalism,” not only at universities where devalorized groups can elaborate their own self-understandings, but also directly on the markets of art and entertainment, and even more importantly, within the relational realms of everyday life. It’s during such moments of crisis – and undoubtedly, only then – that the “worker’s autonomy” described by the Italian theorists of the 1970s becomes fully effective, that is, able to help shape the resolution of a crisis. Yet the effectiveness of this autonomy is double-edged because it weakens traditional solidarities and at least partially invalidates earlier conceptions of class consciousness.
7. The new paradigm of informationalism, based on the lead technology of the networked computer, originates once again in the US with major advances in semiconductors and networking technologies in the late 60s and throughout the 1970s; but it only gains its capacity to shape the industrial labor process through an influx of Japanese management techniques in the 80s (just-in-time production, quality circles, ergonomics, etc). Informationalism is inseparable from a dramatic expansion of the geographical envelope of capitalist social relations, along with a temporal intensification of production, financing and marketing. This expansion/intensification became obvious with the collapse of Eastern-bloc socialism in 1989, but its decisive episode has been the integration of China and India to the world-economy in the 2000s. Logistics becomes central to the new work process. The spatial redeployment of capital means that class, under informationalism, becomes geographical: a large percentage of the Western industrial working class now resides in East Asia, with further concentrations in Latin America and Eastern Europe.
8. Informationalism adds a new layer to social relations: without owning any significant capital themselves, fractions of the former working/consuming classes of the core countries – some of whom even work independently – are now called upon to use computers to manage the circulation of capital both nationally and transnationally, and to assure the sale of products on the world markets. Flexible labor and incentive-based organization are key social forms of the computer era. The cultural contradictions of 1968 are resorbed by the financialization of every aspect of the life-world: information networks become vectors for the corporate micromanagement of desire, carried out by hyperindividualized surveillance, statistical profiling and the stimulation of consumer behavior. The new consumption norm focuses on prosumer technologies and services, which promise access to managerial status and therefore, to speculative investments (in financial products, housing, and above all, in one’s own “human capital”). The linchpin of control is the selective provision of credit, which governs class mobility. The Keynesian management of effective demand by welfare entitlements is transferred to speculative finance dominated by hedge funds and global investment banks.
9. Informationalism has traversed its development phase and has been hit with a major series of industrial and financial crises beginning in the year 2000 and culminating in 2007-08, with fiscal crises of the states and municipalities still to come. The financial crises have been accompanied by crises in capital-labor relations, cultural upheavals and inter-state conflicts. The attempt to replace welfare-state financing of consumption by corporate-managed credit has broken down and what is at stake now is either a continuing slide into economic chaos, or the invention of a new strategy for the stabilization of the transnational class structure generated by networked technologies. Workers’ autonomy – and maybe something like middle-managers’ autonomy – reappears with the cycle of counter-globalization struggles beginning in 1999, but is limited by the deep fragmentation of the global division of labor. To support the failing electronics markets and reassert control after a decade of extreme deterritorialization, the state invests heavily in surveillance and sorting technologies. One culturalized component of contemporary class struggle, Islamism, is systematically exacerbated by transnational elites in a bid to relegitimate police and military authority and to thwart any global articulation of oppositional movements.
10. The globalization of informational capitalism, while not resulting in the complete integration of all the world’s populations, has dramatically sped up industrial expansion and thereby introduced an unprecedented factor, that of environmental crisis due to the saturation of the planetary living space by what were formerly considered the “externalities” of industrial production. This ecological limit to growth will influence the resolution of the current series of crises and the emergence of any succeeding technopolitical paradigm. Both the tragic nature of this new contradiction and the forms of hope and striving to which it gives rise will take their place alongside the others that have been generated by previous phases of capitalism. The unique predicaments and affects of the ecological crisis will figure powerfully in the new kinds of struggles, the new forms of art and culture, and the new varieties of cooperation and solidarity that are just now starting to emerge.