Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Politics of Characterizing Capitalism

My sparse posting over the past few months is mostly due to my recent immersion into graduate school, where, among encountering many new intellectual trajectories, I've encountered serious and self-proclaimed post-modernists for the first time. I've dabbled in Foucault, Butler, Lyotard, Joan Scott, and a few others. As I've done this reading I've had a critical eye for suggestions that we completely abandon the material or historical in pursuit of the discursive, and been extra critical of many post-modernists' outright rejection of metanarratives and grand theories. I am a Marxist, after all.

But I've also been interested in what these theorists have to offer in terms of interventions. It doesn't take a lot of arguing to convince me that the way we talk about things can contribute to maintaining existing structures of power. Foucault, for instance, argues that merely accepting the narrative that sexuality is repressed in our society, even if you wish to transgress that repression, is perpetuating the dominant narrative of sexuality by affording it absolute power in defining the discourse on sexuality.

But when it comes to the anti-capitalist project, knowing how the discursive might be used to interrupt capitalism is less clear. Certainly, one might try to simply de-normalize capitalism by actively challenging the naturalness or common sense-ness of capitalist values. That's a rhetorical move, yes. But how far does that go to actually challenge capitalism?

Then I read J.K. Gibson-Graham's article "(Queer)ying Capitalism in the Classroom." In the article, a la Foucault, Gibson-Graham argues that accepting the narrative of capitalism (when she teaches feminist economics, mind you) as a fully global, dominant, behemoth system reproduces the idea that capitalism is the only system possible in today's context, on the one hand, and a system one cannot resist, on the other.

Gibson Graham's rhetorical project around capitalism is tied directly to the direction of queer theory:
Of course, destabilising images of capitalist dominance is a big project, and I could not do it by myself. Nor could I do it without queer theory, that in credibly dynamic matrix of contemporary theory whose practitioners are not only theorising about queers but who are also making social theory `queer’. This latter project can be seen to involve not (or not merely) constituting a minority population based on same-sex desire, set in opposition to a heterosexual norm, but calling into question the very idea of norms and normality, calling attention to the violence entailed by normalising impulses, including the impulse to theorise a social site assumed to a hegemonic order [7].

What if we were to `queer ’ capitalist hegemony and break apart some of its consolidating associations? We could start by reimagining the body of capitalism, that hard and masculine body that penetrates non-capitalism but is not itself susceptible to penetration (this image conveys some of the heterosexism that structures contemporary social theory). One key `coming together’ (a Christmas effect that participates in consolidating a capitalist monolith) is the familiar association of capitalism with commodification and `the market’. This association, in which all three terms ultimately signify `capitalism’, constitutes the body of capitalism as dominant and expansive (at least in the space of commodity transactions). But how might we re-envision that body as more open and permeable, as having orifices through which non-capitalism might enter? We might argue, as many have done, that many different relations of production, including slavery and independent commodity production and col lective or communal relations are compatible with production for a market. What violence do we do to these when we normalise all commodity production as capitalist commodity production? Surely the market is a mobile and membranous orifice into which can be inserted all kinds of non-capitalist commodities, whose queer presences challenge the preeminence of capitalism and the discourses of its hegemony.
Certainly, since capitalism is the normative discourse in our society, even admitting as much and calling it a discourse (rather than the assumed natural order), is a radical move for many people. But what Gibson-Graham makes us question is whether the desire to portray capitalism as the defining characteristic of our society contributes to its position as such. She mentions then employing different projects in her classes where her classes explore non-capitalist models of production taking place in U.S. society. This both de-normalizes capitalism, by showing alternatives, and interrupts the idea that the normative discourse is actually normal.

But, does this cause us to understate capitalism's real power? Do we need to portray capitalism as inescapable to relate how much power it has over the lives of those who would resist it? And, how would one implement this kind of discursive move outside the classroom (where most of us do the majority of our talking about capitalism with other people)?

1 comment:

T said...

This is an interesting topic for me, especially when considering it from a pedagogical angle.

On the one hand, it is important (as Graham seems to suggest) that we don't overstate the scope of capitalism's power and hegemony; that would foreclose the possibility of resisting and challenging it. Moreover, it would pave over the cracks and contradictions that are built right into the very edifice of contemporary capitalism itself.

But, as you point out, we have to be sure we aren't simply understating the power of what we're up against.

So my worry with what Graham says is basically this: contemporary capitalism seem to function in such a way that apparently oppositional or marginal movements or discourses are in fact part and parcel to the normal functioning of the system. In other words- certain types of formerly subversive or oppositional movements have since been incorporated into commodity culture as "niche markets" and serve to co-opt opposition and stave off any real threat to the system.

I just watched Food, Inc and the first example that comes to mind is the popularity of certain organic products. Now having some organic products at all is surely a kind of victory and didn't come about through some change of heart on the part of Capital. But- that "organic" has now become merely a consumer preference, instead of a more robust political demand aiming to change food production on a large scale, is a problem. Not much has changed about the vast majority of corporate mass milk production since organic milk has come on the scene. I think it would be a mistake to think that capitalism has somehow been weakened by the emergence of an organic "choice" (if you can afford it).

You might even think that capitalism has been strengthened by cloaking itself in a "green" veneer, meanwhile the socially and environmentally toxic and destructive productive practices that existed before continue full steam ahead.