Doing some reading for my Theory Comp (I was advised to start thinking about, in the broadest terms, “what is political theory?”), and I came across a pretty marvelous excerpt about the relationship between capitalism and the discipline of political theory from Wendy Brown (2002). I’m reposting it here because it’s one of those wonderful moments where you read something and go “okay, so someone else is thinking the exact same thoughts I’ve been having.”
[T]here is another matter concerning power that is significant for political theory today, namely, the status of capitalism in our thinking. For a number of reasons, capitalism is not much on political theory’s agenda today. First and most important, it appears unchallengeable. Second, it is difficult to make the case for viable alternatives, either for their viability or for the possibility of achieving them. Third, over the past century and a half, in many ways capitalism has become steadily less odious and more pleasurable for the majority populations of the First World; gone are the scenes of the masses laboring at starvation wages for the wealth of the few, except in the Third World. Capitalist commodity production is also ever more oriented to the pleasures of the middle-class consumer, and the middle class is ever more oriented by its own pleasures. Thus, writes Agamben, “while the state in decline lets its empty shell survive everywhere as a pure structure of sovereignty and domination, society as a whole is . . . irrevocably delivered to the form of consumer society, that is, a society in which the sole goal of production is comfortable living.” Capitalism charms rather than alienates us with its constant modifications of our needs and with its production for our mere entertainment, and we are remarkably acclimated to its production of algorithmic increases in the rates of redundancy and replacement of technologies. Fourth, however cynically or superficially, First World capitalism has developed an ethical face: it recycles, conserves, and labels; it divests itself of genetically modified organisms and monosodium glutamate, and caters to kosher, vegetarian, and heart-healthy diets; it refrains from testing on animals and develops dolphin-safe tuna nets; it donates fractions of its profits to cancer research and reforestation and sponsors Special Olympics, Gay Pride, summer Bach festivals, and educational supplements for the underprivileged. Save for occasional revelations about heinous sweatshop practices or dire devastations of pristine nature, it has largely lost its brutish reputation as a ruthless exploiter and polluter. With the aid of the media that it also sponsors, it has effectively transferred this reputation to images of power mongering, desperate, ignorant, or fundamentalist sites in the Third World—the Taliban, Castro, the People’s Republic of China, the rubber tappers of the Brazilian rainforest. Fifth, these changes in capitalism itself are complemented by recent left intellectual tendencies that deflect from capitalism as a crucible of unfreedom and inegalitarianism. When the seeming perdurability of capitalism, the absence of compelling alternatives, its devotion to consumer pleasures, and its ostenibly improved conscience are combined with increased theoretical attention to other orders of injustice – those targeted by multiculturalist politics—capitalism slips into the background as an object of critique or political concern. Sixth, the rise of professionalism in political theory and the apolitical nature of much theory and theoretical exchange means that this backgrounding goes largely uncontested even by those who consider themselves to be on the cultural left. Finally, the repair of most Marxists to their own journals and conferences (this, too, a symptom of professionalism), and the extent to which many Anglo-American Marxists have substituted “postmodernism” and “identity politics” for capitalism as the chief target of their wrath and analytical attention, means that the Marxist project of illuminating the place of capitalism in political and social life has pretty much vanished from the orbit of political theory.
Yet if capitalism has all but disappeared as a subject and object of political theory (notwithstanding routine drive-by references to “globalization”), capitalism is and remains our life form. Understood not just as a mode of production, distribution, or exchange, but as an unparalleled maker of history, capital arguably remains the dominant force in the organization of collective human existence, conditioning every element of social, political, cultural, intellectual, emotional, and kin life. Indeed, what for Marx constituted the basis for a critique of capital deeper than its exploitation and denigration of labor, deeper than the disparities between wealth and poverty it organized, is that capital is a larger, more creative, and more nearly total form of power than anything else in human history yet fundamentally escapes human control. It was this, in Marx’s view, and not its inegalitarian distribution of wealth, that rendered capital such a profoundly antidemocratic historical force: too little is ours to craft or control as long as this force organizes and produces our world; too little can be ordered according to democratic deliberation about human need, gratification, or enhancement—not our work, our values, our fortunes, our enmities, our modes of education, our styles of love, the content of our suffering. This is not to say that capital is the only significant social power afoot in the contemporary world. We have learned otherwise from Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, du Bois, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Foucault, and their respective contemporary legatees. While importantly supplemented by these teachings, however, Marx’s insight into capital’s awesome power to drive human history and contour agentic possibility is not diminished by them.
No one could have predicted how the force of this insight would multiply between Marx’s time and the present. Our problem today, however, is less with its intensification than with what to do with it when both the science of history and the revolutionary impulse that Marx counted on have collapsed, when the validity of the critique persists but there is nothing to be done about it. For Marx, the depth of the critique was matched by the depth and reach of the redemptive promise. Today this promise is almost fully extinguished. That the most powerful undemocratic force in human history appears here to stay—this is the fundamental left and liberal predicament today, a predicament that haunts our theoretical and political practices concerned with freedom, equality, justice, and more.
This haunt is not the only consequence of failing to engage the powers of capitalism in our work. Rather, our averted glance here also prevents us from grasping the extent to which the dramatic alterations in the configuration of the political discussed under the rubric of “world history” are themselves effects of capitalism and not simply of secularization, disenchantment, or contingent human invention. To paraphrase from the Communist Manifesto, capitalism is a world-class boundary smasher: there is nothing it cannot penetrate, infiltrate, rearrange, hybridize, commodify, invent, or dissolve. The movement of capital is largely responsible for the extent to which boundaries have been erased, in late modernity, between activities or spheres historically bearing at least a modest distinction from one another in terms of space, style, organization, or function, for example, the university and the corporation, sex and technology, or the political and the cultural. Thus, to theorize the politics of recognition, the sexual order of things, the nature of citizenship, or the reconfiguration of privacy, without taking the measure of their historically specific production by capitalism, is literally not to know the constitutive conditions of one’s object of analysis. It is not to be able to grasp the powers organizing life in our time and hence to risk ontologizing this organization and reifying its effects. Finally, to the degree that potential transformations are figured in abstraction from the powers delimiting possibility, it is to make political theory into fantasy play.
Wendy Brown. “At The Edge” in Political Theory 30(4). 2002.