On the train to the airport last week in Düsseldorf at the very end of an exhausting, tightly scheduled, and eventful Central European trip, I overheard two young Germans, a man and a woman, talking about the upcoming G-20 summit in Hamburg, which several nights later morphed into a global spectacle of rioting, arson, and looting resulting in injuries as well as property destruction throughout the center of the city that could only be compared to a battle zone.
What I discerned from their conversation with my proficient, yet limited ability to understand the German language was a decided ambivalence about what was going on in that northern port city famous for both the beginnings of the Beatles and its progressive politics. The pair seemed to be arguing about whether G-20 summits were a good thing, although they both agreed that it was an opportunity to showcase Germany, for long the archetype in the minds of many of the grim relatively recent history of fascist inhumanity and oppression, as a sort of “city on the hill” into the twenty first century for a sustainable, “democratic” capitalism which could be shared by people of all origins and skin colors without succumbing to the authoritarian, “xenophobic”, and hyperpartisan pathologies that seemed to have overtaken other Western nations.
“Hamburg”, however, within less than 48 hours after I disembarked from the train would suddenly become a password for those very pathologies.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had chosen Hamburg as the site for the G-20 not only because it was her birthplace, but because she wanted to make a statement to other nations beset by populist and “ethno-nationalist” recoil that global capitalism could have a decidedly human face, that the much maligned transnational regime of neoliberalism with its advocacy of free trade, open borders, multiculturalism, and the cultivation of “cosmopolitan” identities among the new educated elites truly is the future.
After hundreds had been injured, countless windows of shops (including those owned by immigrants) shattered, automobiles torched, and more than a few buildings gutted with fire from flying Molotov cocktails, however, the future looked more like downtown Damascus today than the hilltop in the old 1970s Coca Cola commercial where smiling youth of all cultures and nationalities once aspired to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”
Even Donald Trump was upstaged by all the violence. In the aftermath German politics just two months before a fateful national election has become a firestorm of blame and recriminations. Although most pundits doubt that the mob lawlessness witnessed in Hamburg would have any noticeable, negative effect on Merkel’s electoral standing nationwide,
G-20 gatherings have always been a magnet for marches, protests, and not infrequent street clashes. But what made this rampage unique was the seeming calculated and systematic way in which the now infamous “black bloc” of anarchists were bent not so much on disrupting the confabs of assembled heads of state, which they contended was their aim, even though they decidedly failed to accomplish, but on making a sensational statement to the world that politics of any meaningful sort was no longer possible.
Normally such over-the-top fury can be ascribed to the reaction of demonstrators to police pressure tactics, but in Hamburg it was obvious that violence from the start was the primary purpose. The Hamburg police, like their peers in other German cities, were not exactly known for their militarization and resort to repressive tactics, as has happened in recent years in American cities such as Baltimore and St. Louis. The underlying – and undying – intent of the self-described “anti-fascists” can be summed up in their now iconic “greeting” they offered to the incoming dignitaries from the major economic powerhouses of the world – “welcome to hell.”
And hell it was! The three nights of mayhem certainly made a mockery of the neoliberal fantasy of a benign democratic capitalism that could be celebrated as the new secular faith of the productive and “enlightened” nations of the world brought together and symbolically aligned in the convening of the G-20 leadership.
Conservatives in both Germany and the United States, of course, simply blame “the left,” as they did when the black bloc rioted in Berkeley against the speaking appearance earlier this year of Milo Milo Yiannapoulis in Berkeley. But the the black bloc, routinely characterized as a new and effective breed of “anarchists” who are increasingly denounced even by some progressives for their “fascist” style of anti-fascism, are like the populists themselves simply the flip side of the same neoliberal form of “governmentality” (Foucault) against whom they rage.
One of the failures of theorists of neoliberalism in seeking to comprehend the full scope of the phenomenon is their tendency to focus almost exclusively on postulated economic predations and the commission of wrongs involving distributions of wealth. But, as German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck observes, “capitalism denotes both an economy and a society, and that studying it requires a conceptual framework that does not separate the one from the other.” (Kindle, 3532-3533). In other words, it is impossible to separate social relations from economic structures.
According to Streeck, capitalism must not be studied primarily as an “economic system.” The mathematization of economics, which in many respects was responsible for the crash of 2008, has been the long-haul consequence of the classical, nineteenth century doctrine that social interactions, including commercial behavior, could be modelled somehow after Newtonian laws of motion. As Max Weber sagely realized, and which explored in detail in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, commercial behavior is but a subset of general social patterns and constraints of conduct, which in turn are enmeshed with metaphysical commitments and religious convictions.
Capitalism, therefore, can be in a certain measured considered a grand sort of Bourdieuean habitus, a codifiable and transpersonal assemblage of motives, practices, and affective relationships that work themselves out in terms of quantifiable transactions that can be surveyed by the social sciences and are routinely regulated not only by law, but by customs as well as social norms and expectations. The capitalistic “habitus”, as Weber described, stems from a certain anxiety initially consisting in the psychological mirror effect of a harsh and demanding theology, but it becomes gradually “secularized” to take the form of an ever expanding dynamo of “creative destruction,” as Schumpter called it, that puts all bonds of human affiliation, dependence, and fealty in question while threatening to dissolve and erase them.
Thus the consumerist ethos of seeking fulfillment for ever multiplying desires for new and different experiences as well as objects follows naturally upon the original “productivist” obsession that Weber associated with the religious world view of early modern merchant societies. But consumerism does not merely involve an obsession with “things.” It may also be described as an obsession with “differentiation.”
Streeck analyzes how the logic of capitalism itself succeeded in manufacturing the Deleuzean “difference engine”, which came to serve within two decades after the end of the Second World War as the lingua franca within Western culture of a wholly unprecedented regime of abstraction and commodification. Following standard economic history, Streeck describes how the rapid urbanization of both Europe and America in the 1920s gave strong impetus for the production and purchase of new durable goods, such as the automobile and the washing machine. In order to foster a functioning financial infrastructure for the new industries built around mass production of durables along with “Fordist” methods of labor discipline and organization, the captains of industry both pioneered and promoted the unprecedented – and until recent times morally suspect – institution of consumer credit.
It was, of course, as Liaquat Ahamed notes, the fatal combination of consumer credit expansion and the enforcement of low interest rates aimed at making it easier for the victors in World War I to pay off their massive sovereign debts during the same period, that was the fuel for the stock market crash of 1929 and the plunge into the Great Depression. Once the next cataclysm that was World War II pulled the Western economies out of the depression, the delicate balance of Fordist productivism and Keynesean policies of “stimulus” orchestrated by central governments to keep consumer buying on an upward trajectory helped nurture the approximately two-decade “golden age” of rising prosperity from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s.
But, as Streeck emphasizes, that economic growth track stalled out eventually, as do all phases in the capitalist life cycle, and a drastic, new configuration for the development of the system was sorely needed. Hence, there began “a desperate search for a new formula to overcome what threatened to be a fundamental crisis of capitalist political economy.” The solution lay in accelerated product differentiation – and even to a significant extent the differentiation of services, which were now becoming more and more the core of the new systems of “production”.
According to Streeck, “capital’s answer to the secular stagnation of markets for standardized goods at the end of the Fordist era included making goods less standardized.”(1732-40) And this rapid, strategical plan for differentiating goods and services (ironically, at the very time when “difference” emerged as the ideological watchword among the cognitive elites in advanced societies) became the turbine for the new “symbolic economy” based mainly on marketing, media, and advertising.
As Streeck notes, “marketing discovers, but typically also develops consumer preferences; it asks consumers what they would like, but it also proposes to them things they might be prepared to like, including things they never imagined could have existed.”(1764-1766) The difference engine of the mass of transpersonal and somatological “desiring machines”, which Deleuze and Guattari saw as the key to undermining capitalism through valorizing the “schizophrenic” substratum of all human experience, was expropriated almost immediately during this period by the capitalist apparatus itself.
The result, Streeck argues, was the advent of a novel kind of “sociation through consumption”. It was highlighted by the sheer extent of the commercialization of social life that aimed to save capitalism from the spectre of saturated markets after the watershed years. In effect, what firms learned in the 1970s was to put the individualization of both customers and products at the service of commercial expansion. Diversified consumption entailed hitherto unknown opportunities for the individualized expression of social identities.
The 1970s and 1980s were also a time when traditional families and communities were rapidly losing authority, offering markets the opportunity to fill a fast-growing social vacuum, which contemporary liberation theorists had mistaken for the beginning of a new age of autonomy and emancipation. The possibilities for diversified consumption and the rise of niche markets, with the accelerated obsolescence they inflicted on first-generation consumer durables, also helped to motivate renewed work discipline, among both traditional workers and the newcomers to paid employment, not least the women.
Interestingly, the same period marked the normalization, at least within the academic sector, of the politics of “liberation” which came to be fortified by the ideology of identity theory. Identity theory, mistakenly branded by its conservative critics as “cultural Marxism” (it only retained in a barebones way any kind of “Marxist” coloration because of its preoccupation with historical forms of “oppression”), followed to the letter the differential logic of the new consumer capitalism, inasmuch as it “created” wants – in this case, new demands for political action to redress claims of injustice through social exclusion. Identifying both the unrecognized position of exclusion and the demand for action fueled the difference engine.
According to Streeck, “the vast variety of alternative possibilities of consumption in affluent post-Fordist markets provides a mechanism that allows people to conceive of an act of purchase – concluding, as it often does, a lengthy period of introspective exploration of one’s very personal preferences – as an act of self-identification and self-presentation, one that sets the individual apart from some social groups while uniting him or her with others.”(1806-9)
Under neoliberalism “solidarity”, particularly among the educated elites, acts as a symbolic operator for not only self-identification, but for self-exaltation, all the while stoking the appetite for further differentiation of one’s passions and purposes. The total vacuity of one’s own sense of selfhood is propped up by the differential logic of ever more rarified fault-finding assuaged in time by the “messianic” fantasy of being able to solve the problem through outrage alone.
Streeck’s real insight is that “communities of consumption,” as he dubs them, can be thoroughly virtual rather than material. And, as the “symbolic economy” increasingly metastasizes into a dense traffic in affect-loaded ideas rather than tangible goods and services powered by corporate interests with the tools and financial wherewithal to manoeuver people’s better angels into serving their worst instincts, “communities of consumption are much easier to abandon than traditional ‘real’ communities,” while social identities become structured by weaker and looser ties, allowing individuals to surf from one identity to the next, free from any pressure to explain themselves.”(1825-26).
In effect, the new stage of neoliberal hegemony gave rise not only to “the high phase of globalization” but “the establishment of a cosmopolitan consciousness industry which discerned its opportunities for growth in turbocharging the expansionist drive of capitalist markets with the libertarian values of the social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s and their utopian promise of human emancipation,” which in itself required the ongoing differentiation of who and what needed to be “liberated.”
Thus late neoliberal capitalism also had to take on the mantle of a supreme moral authority that could no longer be justified through God or tradition. It required its own “immanent frame,” a set of discursive markers that would sanctify the economically productive behavior of social actors in the transnational consumer economy. “In the process,” Streeck writes in a more recent article a volume entitled The Great Regression, “the technocratic pensée unique of neoliberalism became fused with the moral juste milieu of an internationalist discourse community. Its control over the airspace above the seminar desks serves today as operations base in a cultural struggle of a special kind, one in which the moralization of a globally expanding capitalism goes hand in hand with the demoralization of those who find their interests damaged by it.”(162)
Streeck is even more tart and pronounced in his tracking of fashionable progressive politics to the neoliberal discursive juggernaut tout court. “The cosmopolitan identitarianism of the leaders of the neoliberal age, originating as it did in part from left-wing universalism, calls forth by way of reaction a national identitarianism, while anti-national re-education from above produces an anti-elitist nationalism from below.”(169)
In other words, the struggle over so-called “ethno-nationalism” versus a more high-minded idealism of global “citizenship” and a preference for the excluded can be boiled down the interests of the global capitalist elites who seek to denigrate and shame the disenfranchised “workers of the world” into submission. The notion of “anti-national re-education” can without mincing words be construed precisely in the terms Marx had in mind in The German Ideology, namely, that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”(64)
Streeck himself in The Great Regression turns the “radicals” of today completely on their heads. “Whoever puts a society under economic or moral pressure to the point of dissolution meets with resistance from traditionalists. This is because all those who find themselves exposed to the uncertainties of international markets, control of which has been promised but never delivered, will prefer the bird in their hand to two in the bush: they will choose the reality of national democracy over the fantasy of a democratic global society.”(170)
The neoliberal “fantasy” of global democracy, according to Streeck, corresponds to the libertarian pipe dream of “democratic capitalism,” which finally floated out to sea on its own funeral pyre from the port of Hamburg.
In his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, London-based American academic David Graeber, whose thought has shaped significantly global activism against the “capitalist” order of things, betrays the suspicion that anarchism and neoliberalism look at humanity through the same abstractionist lens as those who cling to the fantasy of democratic capitalism. For Graber, there is no such thing as “society”. “The dice are loaded. You can’t win. Because when the skeptic says ‘society,’ what he really means is ‘state,’ even ‘nation-state.’ (39)
In short, we appear faced today, if we allow the “experts” to have their say, with the Hobson’s choice of soul-destroying neoliberal capitalism versus berserker-like anti-neoliberal abstractionism, which conforms to the same “rationality” as capitalism itself, all the while deriving from a self-immolating, differentialist, a-sociation that, born from its primordial “consumerist” logic, consumes itself. Such a nihilistic future looms before us like some monstrous hologram when every thing of substance in our world has been virtualized and ground up in the “difference engine”, as we are compelled to choose between a hollow, utopian imaginary and a city in flames.
And since utopia is by definition “no place,” the only place we have left is the empty site of destruction where we can sit, lift our hands to heaven, and mourn in the ashes.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is also one of the current co-conspirators in theformation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.