January 15, 2007

Critique of Transcendental Miserablism

This post at K-Punk epitomizes a gathering trend among neomarxists to finally bury all aspiration to positive economism (‘freeing the forces of production from capitalist relations of production’) and install a limitless cosmic despair in its place. Who still remembers Khruschev’s threat to the semi-capitalist West – “we’ll bury you.” Or Mao’s promise that the Great Leap Forward would ensure the Chinese economy leapt past that of the UK within 15 years? The Frankfurtian spirit now rules: Admit that capitalism will outperform its competitors under almost any imaginable circumstances, while turning that very admission into a new kind of curse (“we never wanted growth anyway, it just spells alienation, besides, haven’t you heard that the polar bears are drowning …?”).

From Baudelaire’s Le Voyage, with its mournful discovery that human vice repeated itself universally in even the most exotic locations, to the left-wing reading of Philip K Dick as a Gnostic denunciation of commercialized change, capitalistic variety and innovation has been totalized as difference without essential difference, just more of the same senseless dissimilarity. The grand master of this move is Arthur Schopenhauer, who lent it explicit philosophical rigour as a mode of transcendental apprehension. Since time is the source of our distress –- PKD’s “Black Iron Prison” – how can any kind of evolution be expected to save us? Thus Transcendental Miserablism constitutes itself as an impregnable mode of negation. It goes without saying that no substantial residue of Marxian historicism remains in the “communist” version of this posture. In fact, with economics and history comprehensively abandoned, all that survives of Marx is a psychological bundle of resentments and disgruntlements, reducible to the word ‘capitalism’ in its vague and negative employment: as the name for everything that hurts, taunts and disappoints.

For the Transcendental Miserablist, ‘Capitalism’ is the suffering of desire turned to ruin, the name for everything that might be wanted in time, an intolerable tantalization whose ultimate nature is unmasked by the Gnostic visionary as loss, decrepitude and death, and in truth, it is not unreasonable that capitalism should become the object of this resentful denigration. Without attachment to anything beyond its own abysmal exuberance, capitalism identifies itself with desire to a degree that cannot imaginably be exceeded, shamelessly soliciting any impulse that might contribute an increment of economizable drive to its continuously multiplying productive initiatives. Whatever you want, capitalism is the most reliable way to get it, and by absorbing every source of social dynamism, capitalism makes growth, change and even time itself into integral components of its endlessly gathering tide.

“Go for growth” now means “Go (hard) for capitalism.” It is increasingly hard to remember that this equation would once have seemed controversial. On the left it would once have been dismissed as risible. This is the new world Transcendental Miserablism haunts as a dyspeptic ghost.

Perhaps there will always be a fashionable anticapitalism, but each will become unfashionable, while capitalism -- becoming ever more tightly identified with its own self-surpassing – will always, inevitably, be the latest thing. ‘Means’ and ‘relations’ of production have simultaneously emulsified into competitive decentralized networks under numerical control, rendering palaeomarxist hopes of extracting a postcapitalist future from the capitalism machine overtly unimaginable. The machines have sophisticated themselves beyond the possibility of socialist utility, incarnating market mechanics within their nano-assembled interstices and evolving themselves by quasi-darwinian alogorithms that build hypercompetition into ‘the infrastructure’. It is no longer just society, but time itself, that has taken the ‘capitalist road’.

Hence the Transcendental Miserablist syllogism: Time is on the side of capitalism, capitalism is everything that makes me sad, so time must be evil.

The polar bears are drowning, and there’s nothing at all we can do about it.

Capitalism is still accelerating, even though it has already realized novelties beyond any previous human imagining. After all, what is human imagination? It is a relatively paltry thing, merely a sub-product of the neural activity of a species of terrestrial primate. Capitalism, in contrast, has no external limit, it has consumed life and biological intelligence to create a new life and a new plane of intelligence, vast beyond human anticipation. The Transcendental Miserablist has an inalienable right to be bored, of course. Call this new? It’s still nothing but change.

What Transcendental Miserablism has no right to is the pretence of a positive thesis. The Marxist dream of dynamism without competition was merely a dream, an old monotheistic dream re-stated, the wolf lying down with the lamb. If such a dream counts as ‘imagination’, then imagination is no more than a defect of the species: the packaging of tawdry contradictions as utopian fantasies, to be turned against reality in the service of sterile negativity. ‘Post-capitalism’ has no real meaning except an end to the engine of change.

Life continues, and capitalism does life in a way it has never been done before. If that doesn’t count as ‘new’, then the word ‘new’ has been stripped down to a hollow denunciation. It needs to be re-allocated to the sole thing that knows how to use it effectively, to the Shoggoth-summoning regenerative anomalization of fate, to the runaway becoming of such infinite plasticity that nature warps and dissolves before it. To The Thing. To Capitalism. And if that makes Transcendental Miserablists unhappy, the simple truth of the matter is: Anything would.

Posted by Old Nick at January 15, 2007 07:40 AM | TrackBack




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