Brief summary of Marx and the Credit Mechanism - and sundry discordant reflections on a horribly fractured reality
"...even madder – are those circulation artists (who) wants to produce on the basis of exchange value but at the same time to remove, by some witchcraft, the necessary condition of production on this basis." Karl Marx: Grundrisse.
'Marx and the credit mechanism: capital's flight of fancy and giddy transcendence of capital's limits – the utopia of credit a step to a more actual utopia, a step, it has to be said, that begs very awkward questions: "It is the historical mission of the capitalist system of production to raise these material foundations to a certain degree of perfection. At the same time credit accelerates the violent eruptions of this contradiction-crises- and thereby the elements of the disintegration of the old mode of production." Marx: Capital 111.
Lucaks: History and Class Consciousness and Capital 111: Interest bearing capital as showcasing, in exemplary fashion, the totality of reification as moving ever further away from its basis in unresolved class struggle, and the exploitation of labour. Contemporary physics as the perverse rationalisation of an increasingly atomised social system. However we err profoundly if we treat nature as simply a social category. What matters are the uses to which the electric universe is put in the social universe of capitalism: atoms for the post 1945 cold war, quantum for post 1960s' inner space; round-the-clock interactive entertainment marking the end of history and all social striving. The wired house as crypto Von Neumann architecture and primal asset that drives the economy, the chimera of the perfect relationship, and bitch of a divorce enabling the package to recommence ever anew. Spiralling ever upwards in price, the financial cyberhouse as the imaginative ideal of the weightless economy, teleworking from home (the new outsourcing) outstripping factory working in the south east of England.
For the never land of credit, sub prime slime as the moment of hubris – and truth. The bricks and mortar of quantum defying gravity crash too earth with a thud, its cyber occupants propelled into the here and now, their stereotypical, vengeful, homunculi increasingly left to die in cyber space. What then? A green new deal of fictive capital posing as sound money? Zero/negative interest rates as social placater appearing to abolish capitalism, conceived merely as leverage and the reckless squandering of credit? Big government, which not that long ago revelled in the irrational exuberance of the market, now turned honest broker?
What is for Marx/Lucaks a distant possibility becomes actual achievement from the 1970s onwards, as the hour of capitalisms second coming approaches and the credit mechanism aspires to purchase the utopia formerly promised by art. Circulation and the avant-garde artfulness of credit: the credit mechanism as "installation" and the growing geopolitical separation of production and consumption. The late sixties promised a totality of change but the credit mechanism goes one better, positing a totality on tick that, once grasped, turns to dust and ashes.........
There are only scattered references to the credit crisis in Marx but what he has to say is still amazingly prophetic, though inevitably limited by its time. These are to be found sporadically in the Grundrisse, Theories of Surplus Value and in random entries in Capital 111. He stresses that credit is a product of a fully developed capitalism and not the same as usury that is an antediluvian form of credit, in fact its virtual absence. In Capital 111 he says: "There was borrowing and lending in earlier situations as well, and usury is ever the antediluvian forms of capital but borrowing and lending no more constitute credit than working constitutes industrial labour or free wage wage-labour. And credit as an essential, developed relation of production appears historically only in circulation based on capital or on wage labour – usury is essentially an expression of the lack of credit".Moreover what distinguishes interest bearing capital from usurer's capital so far as an essential element of the capitalist mode of production "are primarily the altered condition under which it operates consequently also the totally transformed character of the borrower who confronts the money lender": "The usurer lends to small producers, the modern bank to capitalists".
Most importantly, and of maximum relevance to the present, Marx implies that those who advance credit throw caution to the wind because they don't actually own the capital they advance and so constantly tend to breach the limits of capitalism. However it is not just a question of the divorce of ownership from control but part of the "inner nature" of capital itself, its "concept", that compels it to sweep aside the safety barriers, at no time in the past more recklessly than it has done today: hence the most profound financial crises the world has ever seen. An epochal moment in the history of credit, in order to do this credit had had to become romantic. But beside the selling of dreams ('live the dream') the real aim of the purveyors of consumer credit, though hardly ever expressed as such, is to reduce circulation time to nil and by this means overcome capitalism's endogenous crisis - to bring about circulation without circulation time. When PM Brown, who for so long was the City of London's political ventriloquist, said he wanted to abolish the boom and bust cycle he was simply behaving like a bank cashier or High St chain store pressing, though on a far grander scale, further credit cards on to credit satiated customers to stimulate their appetite for more and more trivia......
But behind the promise of a paradisaic "unrationed sale of diamonds" and "riches spurting at every step", the essence, according to Rimbaud, of capital's never ending 'Clearance Sale' (and title of one of his Illuminations), there is a striving for continuity, for the uninterrupted flow of the production process. Rimbaud ended his 'Solde' with the sober reflection it will be a long time before the cost of this sale becomes apparent to consumers, their indebtedness until then, being a form of liquidity (leverage). Actually Rimbaud speaks of 'travellers' not consumers (nor holiday makers or tourists either, all the terms being too definite and lacking existence), as though the ages of man are ascending floors in a department store - for credit card capitalism aspires to be a form of implant. The final judgement, the day of reckoning, comes when a person recoils in horror at the extent of their indebtedness, and the figures are properly added up rather than made to play tricks.
At the moment of maximum credit availability we are defined wholly by capital, all our longings, belongings, our sense of the past, pleasure and mystery - everything. However for lovers there is only a "frightful death", meaning though commerce fatally poisons love, it cannot destroy its essential core. Rimbaud also speaks of "unheard of applications of reckoning" and "unsuspected terms" like he was able, even more than Marx, to envision a time when 'creative accountancy' could feign to change the world, for "complexity is profitable" as a banker defendant said recently in front of a treasury select committee, spicing the morsel by adding, "complexity makes people believe you understand it". Before the same committee someone else said, "There's not one person in this room that could read HSBC's accounts and understand them" . It was even rumoured that a collateralised debt obligation was backed up with a million pages of data. Exaggeration or not, unintelligibility is a major factor in the persistence of the credit crises.
Despite the apparent 'directness' of credit, - though the ease of its availability to even ninjas (no income, no job, no assets) that ensured the uninterrupted flow of commodities, now very much in the past - Marx also stresses "credit helps to keep the acts of buying and selling further apart in time and thereby is a basis for speculation". The much vaunted creativity of the financial markets since 2001 boils down to little more than the invention of extraordinary mechanisms which increased the circulation of capital (electronic transfers across borders greatly speeding up the largely fictive cash flows through the system, enabling cash to be skimmed from every stage) a process which does not actually create wealth. The opacity of this Amazon-like financial flow also lay behind the unprecedented boom in avant-garde art. Remarkably, Marx refers to the "artificers of credit", a phrase that suggests something more seductive and cultured than a vulgar scam like pyramid selling, though that too can be lifted up by a speculative wave like the one that has broken, to become the most high, and, as with Madoff, the cheapest of tricks palmed off as financial wizardry A phrase like that just rolls and rolls, like Marx could see into the future, able not only to anticipate the marketing savvy of a Damien Hirst but foresee the 'bundling' of art collections analogous to the dodgy financial bundles put together by investment banks and hedge funds and that have brought the financial system to the brink of ruin.
Anticipation. George Lucaks and Capital 111: Credit as false totality
In the early 1920s there appeared a book - in fact a collection of essays - History and Class Consciousness by George Lucaks. Rejected by the Bolshevik elite on account of its "idealism", (in reality a more fleshed out version of Marx's Thesis on Feurbach) it exercised a huge influence, particularly on the Frankfort school and much later in France, a translation only appearing in 1960 where it had a considerable influence on the Situationists but hardly any at all on more reductive groups like Socialisme ou Barbarie, or Rouge et Noir. The first translation into English appeared in 1970 and was published by Merlin press at the moment when the revolutionary dream of total transformation had started to fade. The public school Leninists of New Left Review restricted themselves to publishing only the more orthodox, Bolshevised Lucaks: for example his essay on Lenin and his political writings of the Comintern period when, after much grovelling 'self criticism', he had signed, sealed and delivered himself over to Bolshevik reaction. Up until then the only people who had benefited, in the English speaking world, from reading Lucaks in French were founding members of the English situationists immediately before the the creation of King Mob. This was the only time the Lucaks of History and Class Consciousness could be said to have had a consequential influence here.
I have dipped in to the book hundreds of times since it first appeared in English but it only now occurred to me to check which books the actual quotations from Das Kapital came from. The results were startling. In the essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, which is some 126 pages long, there are fifteen quotations from Capital 1 and ten from Capital 111 with only one from Capital 11. In another important essay, The changing function of Historical Materialism the numbers are equal, seven from capital 1 and seven from Capital 111! It was left to Engels to put Capital 111 together from a pile of notes left by Marx. This assemblage of a book has been fought over particularly by the likes of the war mongering, opportunist German social democrat, Kautsky as against the revolutionary, Rosa Luxembourg. (Broadly put, Kautsky saw in the book the moment whereby developed capitalism became the means whereby money endlessly reproduces itself, Luxembourg on the contrary saw in the same process the moment where value is destroyed, as capitalism lurches from one huge crises to another.) A little later, Lucaks was able to select quotations from the book that have a particular relevance to the present credit crises and the kind of society this unique, and devastating, crises grew from and which Marx merely hinted at in Capital 111.
The longest and most telling quote from Capital 111 appears on page two of Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat and practically takes up an entire page. But first let us examine the genesis of this lengthy quote. Lucaks builds up to it. Initially he quotes from the Marx of Capital 111 who claims the establishing of equivalence by merchant capital is the first instance of a quantitative ratio. The next quote is from Capital 111 also. Marx asserts that originally "economic mystification arose with respect to money and interest bearing capita" a mystification that does not arise with regard to production for immediate use nor under conditions of slavery and serfdom where servitude is the "direct motive power of the process of production". These two citations from Capital 111 are then succeeded by an indispensable quote from Capital 1 on the justly famous 'fetishism of commodities' the linchpin as it were of the entire system of commodity production and the key to its transcendence, lacking which the capitalist mode of production cannot be comprehended historically. This is followed by a further quote from Capital 1 regarding how labour becomes estranged from itself when labour power assumes the form of a commodity.
There then follows a quote from Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy with respect to the "subordination of man to the machine" causing time to lose its qualitative, in a way, incommensurable flow more typical of artisan production. After a further two more quotes from Capital 1, it is only then the full force of Marx's critique explodes on the page, its relevance to today's crises undiminished by time. The near page long quote from Capital 111 and by far the most drawn out quote from Marx in the compilation of essays that go to make up History and Class Consciousness. It is quite simply breathtaking - a mine of quotable material: "In interesting bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, is brought out in its pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content...it becomes a property of money to generate value and yield interest, much as it is an attribute of pear trees to bear pears. And the money-lender sells his money as just such an interest bearing thing. But that is not all. The actually functioning capital, as we have seen, presents itself in such a light that it seems to yield interest not as functioning capital, but as capital in itself, as money-capital. This too, becomes distorted. While interest is only a portion of the profit, i.e. of the surplus value, which the functioning capitalist squeezes out of the labourer, it appears now, on the contrary, as though interest were the typical product of capital, the primary matter, and profit, in the shape of profit of enterprise, were a mere accessory and by-product of the process of reproduction. Thus we get a fetish form of capital, and the conception of fetish capital. In M-M we have the meaningless form of capital, the perversion and objectification of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction. It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently reproduction - which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form. For vulgar political economy, which seeks to represent capital as an independent source of value, of value creation, this form is naturally a veritable find, a form in which the source of profit is no longer discernible, and in which the result of the capitalist process of production - divorced from the process acquires an independent existence".
However Lucaks does point out this apparent resuscitation of antediluvian forms of capitalism does not break with industrial capitalism and remains firmly rooted within in it, a view which makes a mockery of a decoupled new economy based on finance and services, and hence a post industrial economy which, seemingly we have today. Lucaks perspective reflect the more advanced conditions of capitalism prevailing in Europe in contrast to Russia for example, where a revolution of sorts had broken out. But he could not have envisaged the eventual geopolitical nature of this process with China etc. on one side and the consumer emporium of America, Britain and increasingly the rest of Europe, on the other. Though he does not mention Lenin's Imperialism specifically, in a short space of time his conversion to the Bolshevik cause would have ruled out that one day China and India for example would be able to industrialize with break neck speed and be in a position to challenge western capitalism. More, large scale de-industrialization, (in fact its relocation) would in fact alter western capitalism's fundamental orientation and push it in the direction of "interest bearing capital" as the more or less general condition of social reproduction, with the fatal consequences we now see all around us.
The 'corruption' this implies is deeply rooted and infects the entire society and far wider altogether than Lenin's much narrower view of the corrupting influence of the 'labour aristocracy' (like 'bought' trade union leaders) acting as a shackle upon the, at all times, revolutionary potential of the masses.Lucaks says Marx often describes "this potentian of reification". Not however in such an incisive way as the lengthy quote from Capital 111 which is so brilliant that to leave out a single phrase is to disrupt its elemental flow, Marx never once, we suspect, looking up to review a line or read it through afterwards. If Marx had ever got around to reviewing this Kubla Khan of economic auto writing, he may well have struck a line through it as more apparition than reality, a possibility more than a fact whose hour though, against all reasonable expectation, would eventually come to pass.
Marx calls "interest bearing capital" (or credit card capitalism, which, if not entirely accurate, gives the concept a modern setting) "this automatic fetish" - "self expanding value, money generating money" a form of capital that "no longer bears the birth-mark of its origin"..."we see here form without content". Just as it is an "attribute of pear trees to bear pears", Capital, in this form, becomes more like a natural growth than ever, indeed is nature, and 'value' the harvest to be reaped . The nature metaphor goes some way to explaining why, as the night of nature draws in, ecologists conservationists, naturalists, almost in toto, are incapable of even beginning to critique this aberrant from of capitalism, even seeing it, what's worse, as a providential development which privileges nature in the form of the bio-prospector looking for the new gold – the green gold of the New Environmentalism.
The chief ideologist of New Environmentalism, E.O, Wilson, categorically states "there is no longer an ideological war between conservationists and developers" a statement so ludicrously sweeping it completely flies in the face of all our experience to the contrary. Wilson's book, The Diversity of Life, from which the quotation comes, has to be about the most influential book of modern times and codex that informed the Rio Summit of 1992, leading to the setting up of bio-diversity groups, mainly at the local level of government, by signatories of the treaty. Lacking teeth they are worse than useless and in reality the developers best friend, geared up, when required, to supply the obligatory coat of greenwash, without which nothing can now be sold.
Under the guise of conservation, The Diversity of Life gave notice capitalism was entering its bio phase (and probably most dangerous phase of all), the broader ethic it seeks to promote, beyond that of short term gain, an indication of the direction capitalism is likely to take once the money begins to flow again which, it surely will if there is no revolutionary intervention. At the moment however biotechnology is a victim of the credit crises, the US biotechnology industry claiming it is running on empty and biotechnology firms in the UK seeking an immediate cash injection of £15 billion. Though Wilson claims "the stewardship of environment is on the near side of metaphysics" his ethic is an essentially a utilitarian one, a new morality of naturemoney, and capitalist renewal. This is wholly at odds with the primary sensation Kant, for instance, had before nature and which was also linked to a metaphysic (and an aesthetic) that had practical consequences of the deepest, most enduring, sort in which humanity is treated as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. The latent anti-capitalist consequence of this perspective is not to Wilson's baptist taste, nature, on the contrary, renewing his faith in capitalism, his proselytising task to forge the growing horde of amateur naturalists into a new business-like, bio-industrial army. But here is not the place to delve further into this crucial matter: suffice to point out its more than coincidental relationship with de-industrialization, the rise of credit, and a bio-economy still struggling to be born.
Marx goes on to say "in M-M (money-money) we have the meaningless form of capital - it is the capacity of money - to expand its own value independently of reproduction -which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form" – a form in which the origin of profit is no longer discernible - and so acquiring an independent existence "from the process of production".
Suitably modified and never forgetting the changed status of the western proletariat as consumers of last resort for capital, a change which Marx never foretold, the above goes a long way to summoning up our times, its lack of consciousness, utter confusion and ignorance of history. This absence of mind is entirely consistent with Fukuyama's End of History pusillanimous millenarianism which has lasted all of 18 years, and therefore a little longer than the infinitely more sanguinary Third Reich. Though history has exploded this complacency, the fact that it was not initiated by an insurgent people means its wounds were self inflicted, the most notorious episode in the entire history of banking expiring without people running wild in the streets, rather shaking their heads in bewilderment, though it is to be fervently hoped the events in Greece, in late 2008, are merely the first of what have been aptly called "credit crunch riots". Though Marx is describing a society of quintessential alienation in this quote from Capital 111, he is also saying that alienation, as a keyword, would automatically drop out of use in such a society stuck fast in the independent immediacy of the individual parts. It is imperative that the best of the old words come back, for it implies a better grasp, not just theoretically but of things. But how, or when, is another matter.
Alienated beyond alienation, the young in particular are drowning in a sea of incomprehension expecting the past of just two years ago to rise, Lazarus like, from the graveyard of banking history, such is the enduring belief in credit card capitalism. And as for "form without content", the phrase can be applied to a whole string of instances like marriage, the house, art, words etc. the emptier the form the greater the need, it seems, to cling on to it, like our lives depended on it. There is little, either, within the actual experience of the young to set them to rights, or to ground them in any way. So there is much relearning to be done and, who knows, before long Face Book may lose its allure and be pronounce dead and empty when compared to the live pleasures of a face to face encounter with an actual 'workers' movement.
Nature as social category? Or the applied science of alienation? Quantum as toy and perception metaphysic the ultimate credit fetish?
A digression is in order here that, though long, is hopefully still to the point. It concerns not the just the gadgetry of quantum mechanics but quantum's essential wonder, its 'many worlds' feats of infinite human propagation and freely chosen 'creation' of the present, strangely coincidental with a credit mechanism going into overdrive. These reflections also spring from the short shrift atomic theory is given in History and Class Consciousness and the attendant view that nature is a social category and hence, put crudely, natural science is irremediably bourgeois.
In attempting to relativise all cultural phenomena and so treat totality as at bottom a economic singularity in the last instance, Lukacs, thus strips science of any independent truth, more than hinting atomic theory is a scientific rationalisation of the social atomisation characteristic of capitalist society. He seeks verification from Hegel's polemic against Fichte to justify his rejection of atomic theory, (not just the intuition of Democritus but also the actual science of atoms) as a phantasm. In his polemic Hegel describes Fichte''s conception of the state as "a machine" as possible only because people are atomised "an atomistic multitude whose elements are ....a quantity of points". A fine anticipation of the conditions prevailing in bourgeois society perhaps, but it is inadmissible to then claim that the laws of nature are in themselves bourgeois through and through - which Lucaks more than merely surmises is the case. Actually Hegel is rather more circumspect. When he says "such a mind (Fichte) is alien to the life of the atoms themselves" he appears to be hinting there is a crucial conceptual difference between atoms and social atomisation, and though keen on keeping abreast with the latest scientific developments, it is also true Hegel did not, like other teleologists, take to the randomness of atoms because it ruled out a guiding logic in nature.
Lukacs cites a passage from Tonnies Community and Society that claims that sciences behave "like commodities in society" in particular the so called ultimate nature of matter - : atoms and the energy locked away inside them, though Tonnies is not as specific as this, only vaguely sensing they are in some way related. These he regards as no more substantial a supra historical entity than money, and destined to disappear with the overthrow of bourgeois society.
At no point does Lucaks specifically say that contemporary atomic theory is bourgeois science at its most fetishistic and irrational, but the seductive, though empty, passage from Tonnies Community and Society doesn't leave us much of a get out clause. Did he at this period dismiss the work of Einstein, Bohr, Plank, Rutherford etc. with an impatient wave of the hand? If so totality is already in danger of collapsing into totalitarianism. Like Kant's particular god particle, the "thing in itself", the existence of atoms also appears to signify to Lukacs, a failure by man to get to grips with the irrationality of content, a irrationality that extends from the economic sphere into that of nature itself. Via a different route he is thus repeating, in a manner of speaking, Hegel's error. That is to say, In he Beginning, the Word is with the Science of Logic which through a species of dialectical 'fall', alienates itself into nature before it recovers its proper sphere, the spirit of man. Though the book was panned by the Bolsheviks for its Hegelian idealism, their disrespect for 'hard science' was no better and Lysenko could have cited no less an authority than Lucaks, had he been so minded, in his rejection of the 'bourgeois science' of Mendelism i.e. genetics. But whatever reservations we have regarding History and Class Consciousness (for example his foot dragging over the need for vanguard parties when he could see they were being outflanked by the actual movement time after time) it never the less is an otherwise remarkably wide ranging attempt at totalisation. But to say the least, Lucaks treatment of the sciences is a simplistic solution to this weightiest of questions. And what's more, though it is something that cannot be gone into here, the rejection of natural science as bourgeois tended to be accompanied by the most reactionary fetishisization of the forms of art. After the publication of History and Class Consciousness Lucaks became notorious for his defence of the forms of art, all hint of the transcendence promised in the book never to be taken up again, not even remotely.
(In many ways History and Class Consciousness provided the core critique Dadaism was groping for, and could have developed. Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat is succeeded by another striking essay, The Changing function of Historic Materialism even though we can justly wince at the claim "that class struggle is now waged from above and not from below". Apart from the fact that the number of quotes from Capital 1 and Capital 111 exactly balance each other, the plea that historical materialism be made into an undogmatic method for carrying out historical research also contains an interesting aside on art, quoting from the Grundrisse before virtually anyone else knew of its existence. Here Lucaks suggests the sense of the eternal we experience in art as a form persisting unaltered, despite the revolutions shaking the social order, occur simply because previous revolutions were never profound enough. They thus give a spurious sense of the "appearance of eternity" to art and "stability in the value of art", which is "able to survive the manifold and very profound changes in the forms of society - more profound social changes - (being )necessary to render them invalid". The fact that credit card capitalism and de-industrialization has been fed by an explosion of art antiart/art fundamentally opposed to Greco Roman ideal art as 'models that cannot be equalled' (Marx) suggests that this bedrock of core values outlasting the convulsions of history had once, in the not too distant past, been seriously challenged and that its spectre continued to haunt a reaction almost as extreme as the hopes of total transformation awakened by the late 1960s. In the likes of Hirst, Gormley, Emin, the Chapman Brothers etc. we see the grotesque phantoms of universes of hope cruelly dashed.
I would argue that Kant and Hegel, especially the latter, went further in their critiques of art than did Marx, Kant into nature (his only debatable concession to art in his house was a cheap engraving of J J Rousseau), Hegel into a philosophical intimation of the totality of change, including the supercession of art, the end of the prehistory of mankind would bring about. Could Marx's critique of the credit mechanism have been even more incisive had he possessed a more timely critique of art and that developed the one begun by his mighty predecessors?
Though modern atomic theory and quantum are conjoined twins scientifically, the cultural uses they have been put to in the service of capitalism are very different. The atom bomb is not the inevitable outcome of the special theory of relativity or of a scientific understanding of the nature of atoms but, given the utter rapacity of the society we live in, an atomic night had to follow the day of their discovery. Scientific history does not boast a kindlier more humane bunch of men and women than those responsible for the development of modern atomism and quantum physics. This last moment of anti nationalist, disinterested universalism that reached out across frontiers and that existed prior to the making of the atom bomb, recalls that between Humphrey Davy and Gay Lussac during the Napoleonic wars. It lasted up to the making of the atomic bomb but then things began to change drastically and sick minds started to take over, summed up in the conflict between Edward Teller, author of the hydrogen bomb, and Robert Oppenheimer, though perhaps prefigured in that quantum supremo and Nazi sympathizer, Werner Heisenburg.
That these, on the whole, highly attractive personalities should have been press ganged into colluding in the unprecedented use of state of terror as a means of enforcing obedience, is beyond dispute and is one of history's greatest ironies. However the effects of quantum as a social container do not become apparent until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the cold war and, though dependent on technical breakthroughs (the internet and ever broader band width), the ends of capitalism are subtly modified to accommodate the needs of the whole person whose contours, formerly guaranteed by classical physics, are now radically cast in to a fog of uncertainty. Instead of the, changed life, promised by the overthrow of capitalism, 'second life' becomes interest bearing capital's answer to an alienation engendered by credit card capitalism, though one that surpasses the very term alienation, rendering it useless because it suggests unbounded possibilities, like a scientific version of the resurrection promised by religion is in the process of being realised. Credit card quantum is by its very nature other- worldly having its contemporary roots in philosophical as much as monetary speculation. We can hardly do better than amass everything Marx has to say about interest bearing and fictive capital and then developing it to make it more relevant to the present. One quote from Capital 111 seems particularly appropriate here and that is when Marx speaks of capital's "ghost walking" in an "enchanted, perverted, topsy turvy world", a world in which art, religion and quantum meld in what would prove to be the briefest of consumerist heavens.
The electronic circuitry of deflected revolt that it is quantum's task to maintain, depends on the shackling of the an imagination directed to practical ends, not from the inculcation of terror which is so cold war. In so doing it marks an epoch. And here lies the key to quantum's social mystery because it encapsulates in a opposite perspective the counter cultural revolt of the late 60s, neutralizing something that even then acted as a barrier to real revolt, but which in the minds of the rulers became indelibly associated with actual revolution. But once it could be contained by what is essentially television, even though interactive, (and therefore hardly an expansion of the sensory apparatus in any real way, excepting that of sight, the haptic sense being the most difficult of all to simulate), there was no danger of this 'mind expanding revolution' spilling over and taking to the streets. For this is the moment when the doors of perception, whether it be a wave or particle, are opened wide, not just on infinity, but on a mob about to torch Newgate prison, which the young William Blake enthusiastically joined in on. So much of what Blake, the anti Newtonian and scourge of classical physics, wrote is beloved of modern physicists and scientists, from relativist cosmogenists to quantum physicists like Freeman Dyson.
Though the books expounding quantum have turned from a trickle into a virtual flood over the past 20years, the difference from anything written hitherto, beginning with Fritjof Capra's The Turning Point, is the range of quantum theory's applications. In particular it sets no limits to what formerly was presumed to be the province of the very small, there being a clear separation of the micro from the macro world. Today the size of the objects shown to exhibit quantum effects seems constrained only by technology and cost. So we are a wave function until, that is, the wave function collapses and our many selves become the one living within the space time of capitalism. But since we freely choose to see what we see, perception in quantum being the ultimate cognitive act and which makes things exist, we can just as well see capitalism everywhere as not. What an unimaginable boon this 'true' theory is to the mind bending ideologists of capitalism and consumerism, particularly the latter who regard range of choice as what really counts, determining whether we have got ourselves a life or not: I shop therefore I am. The magic of quantum is more than mere magic, it 'creates' matter and behind the increased dematerialization and miniaturization of electronic gadgetry their whispers the superlative dream engines of creation, and hence of limitless consumerism, the 'vogliamo tutto' of nanotechnolgy – a slogan 'we want everything' from the 1977 insurgency in Italy. However with growing job losses and maxed out credit cards, the dream will become less of an immanent reality, the illusion of endless credit being necessary to sell the idea as practicable in the first place. But the more straightened times become and closer,even, to a genuinely post modern, new stone age, the more it is likely to be held up as a remote heaven whose fruits were once tasted in an Eden-like credit card capitalism whose time has just ended. The ads of consumerist abundance will be endlessly played back on a continuous loop to sing of its glory, but not to sell, because there will be little to sell. Rather they will be used to enforce abstinence, a promise of better times to come and ours to have eventually, provided we continue to endlessly submit.
Even if quantum is eventually disapproved it will only be in so far as Einstein amended Newton with his General Theory of Relativity. It has been described as the most successful scientific revolution of all time, not least because it has made possible all our electronic gadgetry. However there is no doubting it costs. Despite deflation, quantum still does not come cheap. Ever broader bad widths require ever deeper pockets and so second, third, fourth life avatars may have to face an indefinite spell of cyber unemployment, the more the collapsed wave function of this life presses in on us and debt collecting agencies come knocking at the door - assuming there is a door to knock on and your house hasn't been repossessed!
As the credit crunch begins to take effect so quantum solace becomes a 'quantum of solace' (i.e. not much) and which is the title of the latest James Bond movie. A TV ad ( I don't recall selling what) features a Matrix look-a-like dressed in an ankle length leather coat and wearing shades coming on set to assure his neophyte 'nothing here is real'. 'Nothing' asks the neophyte before throwing himself against a wall and receiving one hell of a knock. 'Oh everything except that' says the discomfited quantum magus.
To give an idea of how fluid quantum entertainment can be, the latest ad from Volkswagen cars is likewise 'Matrix' influenced. In it a Volkswagen AVW executive is ambushed by a series of Matrix like clones of himself. As in the Matrix trilogy, these clones are hostile suggesting the ontological profligacy of the wave function is nearly as disturbing to the bourgeois mind as is the demand to "change life" except the Matrix is a screen narrative of other lives we simply view as at best vaguely beguiling entertainment and of no material consequence. Except as a fashion trend setter for long leather coats, it is utterly different from Rimbaud's anguished cry "real life is elsewhere", and which, profoundly anchored in this world, is anything but an anticipation of the 'many lives' suggested by quantum theory. The ad ends with the injunction "sometime the only one you have to beat is yourself" as though one's best, even as a executive, is not good enough and that it is necessary to try harder if the ultimate driving machine is to be perfected: the wave function and possible other selves collapse into the car show room, it does not collapse the car show room.
The real purpose of this quantum fight to the death played out on TV is to seal mankind within its larval state and prevent revolutionary metamorphous from taking place. The ad had barely reached our TV screens when it was announced Germany's 5th richest man. Adolf Merckle, hadcommitted suicide for making a wrong way bet on VW shares which had soared when Porsche moved to increase its stake in the company in October 2008. The billionaire who bet big, and shorted his own life, was anything but a show off, did not own a yacht or a fast car and refused to travel 1st class. The kungfu, quantum VW executive also does battle with his adversarial self in shirt sleeves, not a suit.
Yet even so Mercle's life was defined by the accumulation of wealth and was the key element in his identity, even though he did not feel the urge to display it and therefore untypical of today's de luxe crazed financiers. The quantum VW contest with our multi personalities can be viewed as a desperate bid to hang on to the notion of economic man when that acquisitive stereotype is everywhere crumbling. When economic editors feature suicides in their financial reviews, almost as a matter of course, we can only express satisfaction an economy based on financial services is losing the will to live. But we are still a long way from putting the defenders of capitalism in all its forms on suicide watch and which begs the more general question "suicide or revolution", a question that has been put on hold for just too long.
The latest Volkswagen ad was featured by The Independent in its review of the year's advertising as an example of creative advertising and a model to be emulated, the ad agency having the courage to seize control of the product and take it out of the firm's hand. As The Independent reviewer said "life will change irrevocably" a sign of how a world that changes irrevocably may do so in a radical direction and is already making inroad into the media, its future credibility, like adland's, dependent upon recognizing things will never be the same again. The reviewer further says "this is the end of the old order" - if only it were! To this advertising guru, it means ad agencies will be tested like never before and, if they re to survive, they need to "help brands create new environmental and cause related initiatives that will appeal to a new generation of consumers less concerned with consumption than quality of life. Time for agencies to get into the driving seat."
Beneath this exhortation to "be truly creative and intelligent" there lays a greater threat - the danger that production might eventually be seized by the producers and directed to social and environmental ends. However America, as the most advanced capitalist state in a world of capitalist states, by appointing a black president, and he in turn a team of environmental scientists and engineers, means that industry will be forced, at the very least, to open up its R&D to maybe a more 'enlightened' government inspection. (A big if) Already the big three car companies will be under enormous pressure to justify a bailout of $17 billion and revive schemes like GM's electric car, sabotaged by an 'anti eco conspiracy' of colossal proportions in 2003 involving a coalition of oil and car companies. If ever the conditions were ripe for a 'green' capitalism it is now. But whatever mask capitalism puts on, it will always revert to type: a condition of the bailout of GM and Chrysler is that they cut workers pay by $10 an hour!
The responsiveness of ad agencies to revolt from below goes back, at least in this country, to the 1970s and a class struggle of seismic proportions. Operating behind the backs of ad agencies, it's a major factor in agencies sloughing off their former subservience to their clients and ruling them instead. Humour is part of that defiance, the hot sell just too serious for words – and counter productive. Much of the appeal of class struggle has always resided in an infectious sense of humour which came so naturally to industrial workers in this country, the reasons for taking strike action tending to be less effective, in breaking down barriers in the short term, than the readiness to have a laugh. Around the time of the mass strikes of the Winter of Discontent in 1978/9 there appeared an ad, mainly shown in cinemas, which featured people losing their footing on felled tree trunks and falling into a lake, the idea being that opening a bank account was as easy as falling of a log. Rik Mayall of The Young Ones was just one of a number of 'star' turns and it marked the first time an audience began to laugh with an ad rather than laugh at it.
As the good housekeeping of the Thatcher/Reagan era dawned it was not immediately evident that it would turn into a murky torrent of unregulated money and derivative occultation as the "even madder - circulation artists" (Marx, Capital 111) began to take control. The budgets the ad men and women began to yield were vast, their excess reflecting the enormous faith the City of London had in the business. Frank Lowe, the ad designer, thanks to the success of his BA ads, (costing close on £2 million) of people on a beach in the shape of lips (c/f Dali's settee of Mae West's lips and the Man Ray painting of giant lips set in a skyscape) was able, in effect, to tell Ford's to fuck off and sack them and, within three week land another corporate client, Fiat, who was prepared 'to go the whole distance'. The ease with which Lowe was able to humiliate this corporate giant may well have had something to do with the company's furious political debagging for having dared, in late 1978, to breach the pay restraints of the social contract and thus unleash what was to be the second biggest strike wave in 20th century Britain. The fear still lingers on because the Winter of Discontent was mainly a public sector strike.
That the hot money was pouring into ad agencies and not into the NHS was indicative of the growing importance of consumption as the motor of the economy, drip fed through a credit mechanism favouring the private individual far more than the 'public' purse. However one day in the late 1980s the Saatchi brothers decided they no longer wanted to work for corporate clients but be them, setting up a meeting with the Midland Bank with a view to purchasing it. This proved to be the moment of hubris and from then on the accountants, though considerably helped by the recession of the early 1990s, began to take control of 'Thatcher's bad boys', the advertising upstarts who no longer knew their place. Tim Bell, formerly of the Saatchi Bros, and who was responsible for persuading Mrs Thatcher to let the firm run the Tories advertising campaign, mentions how, on one occasion, an ad man grabbed a pair of scissors and clipped an executives tie in half because he had fallen asleep during a presentation. He was not sacked either for this insolent example of 1980s advertising lesemajeste. So the ad agencies were brought more into line with what was happening in the NHS, where accountants had already succeeded in wresting control from the consultants. This correction, that marked an end to flash and showmanship, occurred in the 1990s and the guys in suits have kept a tight rein ever since.
Forgetting what it was there for, Planet Advertising was aspiring to be an end in itself, imagery coming first, the product last. The tight restrictions on cigarette advertising no doubt fostered this separation, inadvertently setting in train a process in which all commodities were eventually treated as in some way toxic and hardly worth the sacrifice of owning, the imagery of disassociation more important than the reality of possession. Celebrities were also debunked, like in the Cinzano ads in which Joan Collins ended up with a humiliating soaking in the stuff every time. In this oddly lettriste form of selling, one word only, the brand, was the maximum allusion allowable. Advertising comes from the Latin verb advertere, to turn towards. However this was a turning away from, advertising for advertisings sake. It reached its apogee in the years immediately following the miner strike, its victory a hollow intimation, in the world of advertising, of what might have happened had the miners won. But it was not a detournement of advertising from within, rather a sign that it had run away with itself and was in danger of losing its raison d'etre.
By 1990 the Saatchis were £100 million in the red and Maurice Saatchi retired to build up his art collection. The bank they were so keen to purchase, the Midland Bank, was a bank specifically tailored to meet the demands of industry, a move, in retrospect, that heralded the frictionless millenarian attempt to replace industry with art, to make Britain at least the studio of the world when it patently could no longer be the workshop of the world. Pandemonium had accompanied the onset of the industrial revolution, the title of a collection of quotations from 1660 to 1886 recording its impact on contemporary observers put together by Humphrey Jennings, the film maker, and only true 'magical realist' because he eschewed fictional narrative, though not the clearness of extracts "that can stand as symbols for the whole inexpressible, uncapturable process". However the shift to Britain becoming art capital of the world (and London, finance capital of the world) was marked by a the opposite of pandemonium, a chill, anti-social, quiet without precedent in the known history of this island, permitting the approaching, hydra headed, 'apocalypse' to roam without impediment. Of the several sections that compose Pandemonium by far the biggest is occupied by revolution, class as well as industrial. However the transition to a 'post-industrial', service economy is marked by the quietest of fanfares, as befits the enduring social peace it is supposedly bringing about, the 'shock' value of the avant-garde substituting for the formerly earth quaking jolts of actual social revolt, now turned in-over into something like collective suicide, certainly despair and depression.
For history to be put to sleep, a dumbing down without precedent was needed to secure it. Ads in turn became cut off from what few events from below there were, 'art events' in the mean time standing in for that absence. 'Whiteness' grew into a vogue, symbolising the unwelcome tubula rasa of the times, the past now over and done with. Malevich was sanitised to signify the end of history as preached by Fukuyama, and 'White on White' was daubed with a dollar sign, for this end of history meant no end of cash for a few. The space/time of performance art, as filtered through the advertising industry, became a parallel practise, just as it had been for classical German philosophy before Hegel put the matter right by claiming the labour process was prior, and that art had little impact on events, arriving on the scene after the fact as a representation of 'spirit', not the actual 'spirit'. The empty formalism of the avant-garde became well nigh universal and very much a feature of globalisation and the ad industry and it is somewhat ironical that Maurice Saatchi's retreat from advertising into art should turn out to be no such thing.
Though it appears M Saatchi retired hurt from the ad industry proper, his firm a victim of the 1990s recession as were other ad agencies, in no time at all he was successfully catapulting Damien Hirst into the big time, making avant-garde art into a media event increasingly covered by the worlds press and TV channels. Once talked about, there appeared to be no limit to the valorisation process, hype a necessary correlative of the credit mechanism and circulation process: turned down by the Midland Bank and City of London backers, even to Saatchi's his revenge must have exceeded all expectation. Whereas formerly bankers like Pier Point Morgan had collected art, it took an advertiser turned collector to take it out of the museum and make it part of the production process, not just in terms of hardware but as a neo Dada parody of lived experience, an arrested form of play that rests content with commodities but never once seeks to transcend them.
Though the overlap between art and the credit mechanism becomes ever more transparent, the art historical references do not, surprisingly, appear all that obvious to the pundits of the advertising fraternity. No one has ever related Honda's 'cog ad' to Tinguely's auto destructive machines which went on to influence the Guinness domino ad with not only dominoes stood on end but, spilling over into the street , includes cascading cars, bits of furniture, and a circular palisade of old books somewhat resembling a John Latham assemblage. Set in a southern Italian village and with a nod to property programs like A Place in the Sun, the ad had a more downbeat consequence, to suit these tougher times, when it was parodied in a Pot Noodle ad. Set on a run down, high-rise housing estate, the dominoes are replaced by sub prime fag packets, mobile phones, microwaves, fridges and wheelchairs in a chain reaction that ends up with boiling water tipping into a Pot Noodle tub.
All this is surely obvious and yet it continues to escape notice. Are the cognoscenti of ad land really that ignorant? In The Independent's media review of 2008 (5/1/09) a Barclay's card ad is recommended, the ad actually first screened on TV in the weeks following the collapse of Lehman brothers, the bailout of AIG etc. It features a guy in swimming trunks sliding a round a city on a giant water flume paying for things with his Barclay's card.The idea of the water flume is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, derived from Carsten Holler's helter-skelter installation ('Test Site') in Tate Modern back in 2006. Yet this is not mentioned in the article, never mind that this interactive, funfair, experience could be an installation forerunner of a post-crises 'interactive bank'.
The aim of the ad is to make you love your credit card all over again and a sign, though interbank lending and lending to industry has ground to a halt, the same criteria does not apply to the individual consumer. A short piece in The Guardian (4/11/08) asked if Barclay's, then on the brink of beggary, had any shame, egging its customers to spend, spend, spend thanks to a new goldfish credit card. The argument from all sides is return to business as usual and there is precious little evidence of any fundamental rethinking taking place as regards where does capitalism go from here. Given greater guarantees than ever before, Banks feel empowered to do as they please because the crisis has made them aware there is no alternative to the system now in place, the threat of a green new deal that emphasises a second industrial revolution, growing more remote by the day.
Not only has the triumphant humbling of the bankers proven to be short lived but instead of 'Repossession, Repossession', there is, against all the odds, a new series of the TV house hunting program Relocation, Relocation. And Cowboy Builders are back again – as are the cookery programs. Now more numerous than ever, they do not encourage us to cook for ourselves but to eat out, the whole of the media now surreptitiously bent on reviving, despite being dealt a death blow,the financial, service economy. And Hirst who through his link with Saatchi commenced the advertising- and bundling - of the avant-garde says he welcomes the prospect of selling his work at cheaper rates. For good measure Hirst has made another Unicorn to rival the one sold for £4.1 million at the Sotheby's sale. Originally entitled The Dream, this one is called The Dream is Dead. Read into it what you will, but if the society of interest bearing capital has reached an impasse there will be enough idiots around to say Hirst predicted its immanent demise, just as Duchamp's shovel purchased from a hardware store and entitled In Advance of a Broken Arm was one day used by a labourer to clear snow who then slipped - and broke his arm! Who ever would have thought the ready-mades would end up inheriting the mysterious power of religious reliquary? Irony is an ambiguous commodity to say the least.
The more the credit crises bites the more the space/time of displaced lives changes and housing, as an investment and way of life, ceases to be the top priority. The numbers cease to add up, both as regards the electrons that make up the mix of elements in the bricks and mortar, and the sum required to buy a house, now in dire need of a basic, energy saving refit. The quantum fantasy house with its cool toys for boys ad girls and, for roof and four walls, a wi-fi cloud computing brain, is to credit card capitalism and neo-liberalism what the metre thick, fall out shelter was to the cold war and a massively proactive state - a way of maintaining the integrity of the nuclear family, except now the nucleus is disintegrating like never before and what lies outside the door, a social nothingness. In our unrelatedness we are like liberated ions and in our nakedness look to therapy for help. Hence the bull market in counselling and one day it is to be hoped someone will give serious consideration to the relationship between CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), the quantum psychological must-have of the moment, and Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle".
However in the hands of cognitive behaviour therapists, the uncertainty becomes absolute certainty and only serves to underwrite the dominant ideology: hence we are the problem, we are at fault, never reality. To date its broadest field of application was during the Chinese Cultural revolution of the late 60s where hundreds of thousands were re-educated into learning to love big brother Mao. An increasing number of mental health professionals are in no two minds that CBT amounts to a form of brain washing and point to its use in the Cultural Revolution – without ever gong on to say that the Cultural Revolution was a war between traditionalists and modernisers, that just happened to inadvertently unleash one of the most far reaching workers' revolts in history that groped for autonomy under a regime that called itself "communist". If ever mental health professionals were able to grasp the full implications of this, they would not long remain mental health professionals finding it hard to recover from the shock to their nervous system.
Actually the highly anomalous provenance of CBT is not as contradictory as it first appears, for the chief prerequisite of both brain washing and quantum is a change in perception. And if we have to look for the contemporary roots of CBT, we need go no further than the storehouse of progressive experimentation and sheer lunacy that was western Maoism in the late 60s. This strangest of amalgams combined psychedelia, drug taking, sexual liberation, rights of the 'insane'.......and support for the killing fields of Pol Pot, all loosely tied in with a belief in the primacy of direct action that had consequences frequently at variance with the narrow ideology on which it was based. And CBT initially was also a pale recognition that ideas can lead to change and as such a rejection of the prevailing behaviourist psychology then dominant both in the USA and the Soviet Union.
Proof that these largely forgotten times still glimmer through the mists of history is to be found in the present labour government's support for the CBT as a means of curing the growing incidence of depression. It is not only the crassest option available but also the cheapest, state patronage virtually ensuring it will increasingly become the butt of criticism. But, for the moment, the most articulate attacks have come from within the fields of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. However it is not the reasoning behind the attacks that interests us here but the alternative cures proposed for the near pandemic of depression and which has a direct bearing on a society run on credit, such as Marx envisioned as a remote possibility, and which Lucaks saw as "capitalism's self-realization...a process of transformation (that) must embrace every manifestation of the life of society".
Paul Keedwell's book How Sadness Survived (2008) is interesting because he is an evolutionary psychologist who claims that though depression has a genetic basis and we all have a biological capacity to suffer from depression, it can be a great social incubator from which good things can spring. But from the case histories he cites, it is largely a society based on finance that is the specific cause of our problems, not capitalism per se. In order to cure ourselves we must seek out more sustainable, alternative life styles, like living on a canal barge for example, and not working ourselves to death over bits of paper: Chapter one of section two is simply entitled Living on a Boat. If we are not to remain forever maladjusted we must get closer to our stone age selves, for the genetic material we are made of has barely altered since the stone age. Keedwell's mistake is to think this is ever really achievable without first abolishing capitalism, though if we read the book correctly he is, in fact, saying our genetic programming rules out our biological toleration of it. This is most un-typical and the exact reverse of the biologisation of ideology we have come to associate with social darwinism. However since Keedwell never once argues the case for a revolution, his book can be read either as a form of scholarly new ageism, or a darwinian Flintstones of the human genome, the very possibility of alternative living increasingly a joke in a society in which choice has been narrowed down to picking and choosing from amongst a range of consumer items.
Unusually for a geneticist, Keedwell expresses a degree of sympathy for psychoanalysis, particularly the overall importance the infant "depressive position" occupies in the work of Melanie Klein, which accords with his far from simplistic view that the genes coding for depression are distributed over the whole population. However there is not one mention of Freud, but all psychoanalytical treatise on depression continually refer back to his 1917 essay Mourning and Melancholia. This short essay forms the basis of another book published in 2008 that also examines depression. Called The New Black by Darian Leader it likewise acknowledges depression will shortly (2010) be the single largest public health problem after heart disease. Without even the merest mention of capitalism, Leader still manages to bemoan a system in which "a person is just a unit of energy, a packet of skills and competences which can be bought and sold in the market place", causing people to lose heart and so destroying (wait for it!) their "market potential as they fall into depression and misery"! In a way it is a back handed recognition that capitalism has taken control, root and branch, of the life of society, and now so impregnable that opposition to capitalism will forever chase its own tail in an eternal whirligig of resistance and approval, approval and resistance, lacking any real outcome. In the same vein should we be really surprised if art is then paraded as the cure and that Freud "is saying it is the arts that can save us" at the very moment art is more capitalised than ever, indeed central to the functioning of capitalism?.
Depression in Freud's essay of 1917 is treated as a psychological aberration lacking a location both in time or in the space occupied by different social classes. Yet the date is a give away and in the essay Thoughts on War and Death, written a year after the start of the First World War, and by which time the unspeakable carnage was then in full swing, he does at least treat the symptoms of depression as a general social phenomena. For civilians there is "bewilderment and a paralysis of energies" all movement becoming lethargic, the limbs like tonne weights because of "the mental distress felt by non combatants against which it is such a heavy task to struggle." "Alienation", "estrangement", "loss", "impoverishment"- these rippling terms re-occur in the essay as the ones best suited to describe this by now common painful psycho/physical state, terms which hark back unmistakeably to the Hegelian roots of Marxism, psychoanalysis potentially providing them with a new depth of meaning by clothing them in flesh and blood. By 1917 Freud's treatment of depression would have become much more specific, and removed from the life going on around him, as the war drew to a close, middle class Viennese women suffering the hell of a broken heart his analysands rather than a people. In Mourning and Melancholia there is no mention of culture as if the Egon Schieles' of pain were yet to get hacked off with it. However "Thoughts on War and Death" is packed with negative references to it, particularly the novel and theatre. Against all reckoning, in this moment of gravest crisis, art is abandoned as lacking in interest, life gaining in intensity, if not appeal, in this most desperate of situations. The novel is discarded and our many selves that found a vicarious outlet in the novel, especially the psychological novel, return to their own proper home. Though "life has regained its full significance" the casting to one side of art is not an act of emancipation in readiness for a revolution. Rather the reverse: it is an act of involution taking us back to our distant primitive self "a being more cruel and malign than the other animals (who) liked to kill and killed as a matter of course". If it has a salutary lesson for us, it is that civilisation is built on a fraud and that its unmasking is our only recompense, one the remnants of humanity can painfully reflect on as the final truth. There is no higher state than the lowest and from this vantage point the psychoanalyst replaces the philosopher in what is, rather than the crowning of world history, now world's end, for that is what the inferno of the Somme, Paschendale, Ypres etc. appeared to augur. It is a pity this outer reach of bourgeois pessimism, as manifest in the overlooked Thoughts on War and Death, has not been mined for the valuable insights it contains. In the absence of barely one smidgeon of comfort, it requires some effort to see its relevance to our time.
Reading it earlier in the year 2008, I was aware the quite mild episode of depression I was then experiencing could have been far worse was it not for the onset of the worst financial crises in human history, I was also much struck by the fact that society was dividing into broadly two the split between the inner city an suburbia seeming to count for more than straightforward class polarization. On the one side, there were those who welcomed the crises and couldn't get enough of it, and, on the other, those who were strenuously seeking to shut it out, like their lives depended on it. And so in a way their lives did, an impending holocaust of suburbia, and suburban values, replacing that of the trenches, financial instruments of mass destruction substituting for tanks, guns and gas attacks. Though scarce apparent to begin with, and still yet to fully sink in, the crisis marks an end to a way of life based on rapidly inflating house prices, property makeovers, credit card bingeing, frequent holiday breaks, ever bigger cars and, in between times, a never ending succession of shopping expeditions. To admit a society based on housing collateral, easy credit and services has been fatally wounded through the heart is also a life and death matter to those who gave themselves over to it so wholeheartedly in the first place, notwithstanding it tended to bring them more pain than pleasure, particularly as the scale of their indebtedness began to mount. Believing in the immortality of credit, an acceptance of death will not come easy to these credit junkies and model citizens, whose way of life is founded on consumerist holy writ such that any protest against it is judged as not right in the head, even as they are driven out of their minds. In fact one wills ever further chaos and disintegration upon them in the hope light may eventually penetrate their tunnel vision and madness. But meanwhile chaos reigns amongst these former Thatcherites and Reagan democrats and there is many a juicy tale waiting the telling.............
Take Pete and his wife Jane. A water company now employs him and his wife works in a factory. Pete having been involved in a personal work dispute, a union rep was called and a subsequent tribunal found in his favour. Nonetheless, management - in all their present day viciousness - were still able to victimise once the hunbub died down. A year ago he was asked to re-apply for his job, then given a more menial one when he failed to get his old job back. Humiliated and continually sneered at behind his back, he is now on antidepressants having bought shares in the company when it was privatised. When credit was easy, Pete spent freely getting himself into considerable debt, buying an expensive caravan, taking lots of continental breaks, eating out and buying cart loads of trivia and electronic gismos. His son could never stay put in the same job for long, hit the drugs and began sleeping under Brighton Pier. Getting a girl pregnant Pete's son and the girlfriend wound up sleeping in a tent on a roadway verge both scorning to sign on the dole. Living from hand to mouth, Pete and Jane struggle to keep up appearances, the talk now of bargain hunting and cut price offers; the best price no price at all. But the forms have to be observed at all cost – or rather very little - and weddings, birthdays and Xmas are now all on the cheap - obligatory dress code meaning come wearing a joke shop 10p dickey-bow tie, and for evening dress a lurex gown bought for £15 from a charity shop and that will be worn for other special occasions, like their son finding a job. With no cash to spare, and living in a small house, they went out and bought a robotic vacuum cleaner that cannot get into corners-----and a salt cellar that lights up when used, which puts them well ahead of the Jones' next door. When the large, flat screen Tele/Computer is not on the DVD player is, blasting out numbing pap. On one wall is a flashy print of thrown together photos, autographs, headline revues of the pop group Queen, on the others prints of Sevi Ballesteros in various poses , uncorking a bottle of champagne, teeing off, jacking off and so on.
Exposure to this white noise of incessant entertainment quickly results in a kind of mental paralysis and when combined with further bombardment from Facebook, You Tube, My Space, Twitter and "second life", the self begins to corrode in this acid fog of a total art experience for the dumb and dumber in which all is emptiness. It was then the relevance of what Freud had to say about art set against the horrific backdrop of the First World War, really hit me. To get anywhere the plug has to be pulled on all this nonsense, even a family member driven to take their own lives by the credit crunch, preferable to this hollow nothingness because it would pull friends, relatives, neighbours up short and immediately become a talking point in the street outside, forcing everyone to focus on the great issues of the day instead of continuing to regard them as a severe technical glitch in the only possible reality, that of push button consumer capitalism. In loss, life will have gained in richness - certainly potential – and sad to say it could be that only when life gets this bad, death and ruin this close, will suburbia wake up and face facts.
The need for actual human contact (epitomized by the price of a pint of beer dropping to the 1988 level of 99p a pint in a pub chain) must eventually begin to replace the atomisation implicit to electronic hardware, the false introspection and fantasy projections of 'second life', played out round the clock merely reflecting the dominant stereotype of capitalist society. This substitute virtual life is even more barren than the fictional worlds of the novel and theatre which allowed for a plurality of the self, the reader identifying with the hero or heroine and gaining some vicarious satisfaction from the unfolding narrative and adventure scenes. The sheer scale of the carnage of the First World War brings a welcome end to this illusion. But when the theatrical masks are torn off what we find there is not a completer human being, one anxious to get started on their own personal odyssey, but the warring stereotype of capitalist man, whose origins are lost in prehistory but somehow at home in the internet post-history, as if Freud has written the software for essential man. The 'second life' of inner space is ruled by random violence and robbery, a reflection of the street outside and the world at large, though given a digitised Middle Earth modernoarchaic makeover that combines folklorish powder horn and scabbard with smart missiles, fire breathing dragons with napalm, stretch limos with rustic carts.
Though comments like this can run and run - and look out for our shock horror impressions of suburban disintegration - one final word, as a sort of reminder of what we are about here, but also a bridging passage to a number of concluding reflections.
According to Lukacs as capital develops so the will becomes increasingly enervated as the worker becomes less active, reduced to an appendage of the machine and more akin to a supervisor. Though he buttresses this hardly contentious claim by requiring we check it against what Marx has to say in three places in Capital 1, at the same point in the appendix he comment's that "contemplation can be more demanding and demoralizing than 'active' labour". Significantly he does not cite Marx to back up his claim. And since we are taking leaps here, how true this is, one might add, of entertainment, especially so of light entertainment. Nothing can be as debilitating and wearying as the hard labour of entertainment, in comparison with which a day's arduous graft can be a doddle. Not for nothing has the fatiguing Mamma Mia topped the all time best selling DVD chart in the year when the credit crunch turned into a monster, ready to gobble down the rest of the global economy. If any economic equation is able to sum up what it is like to be tortured by utter triviality and a capacity to shut out the most trifling of unwelcome facts, substituting in its place, an insensate happiness based on the most superficial wish fulfilment imaginable , it is M-M ..........and which coincidentally happens to be the initials of Mamma Mia!
What we must constantly keep in mind is that since Blair came to power financial services have risen from 6.5% of the economy to over 10% today and that house prices have tripled since 1998. It is essential to bear in mind also that the City of London has underwritten the grim domestic scene described previously and that it took 30 years to build up a consensus of non interference in the financial sector. Neither the City of London nor Wall St will relinquish their gripon power just like that,and, from the cities and continents of pain, it is expected paradise will be regained come 2012. From an initial humiliation, the banks have clearly triumphed, a second banking bail out proof they can milk the "public purse" indefinitely whilst pissing on just about everybody. In late March last year (2008) this is exactly what the director of the Bank of International Settlement – the central bankers central bank - feared when he declared that the underwriting of losses would "be inadvertently building the underpinnings for another crises 5 or 10 years later".(Guardian 8/4/08).
But though chaos still reigns at this cross roads, suburbia is far less sure of its destiny than is the bankers international, for what Anotole Kaletsky ("Times" September, 12/2008) called the biggest expropriation of private property by the state ever undertaken in the history of capitalism has turned into the biggest give away . Suburbia wants to think, like AIG, it is too big to fail, and though assuredly it will be allowed to, it is right, in so far as it has long been sold – though never with such enthusiasm as now - as the embodiment of all our aspirations, and if it should fail, capitalism would then lack a dream and an economic rationale. The clearest testament so far of the longed-for return of the same came, not unsurprisingly, from Hamish MaCrae economic editor of The Independent, who by early December (5/12/08) felt it was safe, once more, to say that it was asset inflation that held the key to recovery: "What I think I can say is that this global credit crises started in the US housing market and that is the place to look for its conclusion". This is just the sort of clap trap home owning, financial man, wants to hear, because it means that all they have to do is sit tight for a couple of more years and everything will be back on course. However what we have here is a failure in communication because financial man tends only to read the local weekend paper and to switch channels when the news comes on .And so they have the uneasy feeling they have been betrayed by the financial community and the state and that their way of life is under threat. And if a surprising poll (Guardian 14/1/09) is anything to go by, that showed confidence in the banking system in the UK is lower than even in Iceland, it does suggest a more wide ranging, enriching debate is possible at some time in the future. All one can say at the moment is that the suburban dream, its allure now haunted by nameless demons, is more open to question than has ever been the case before. However it is packed full of inconsistencies and, true to type, extremes of vacillation and therefore does not hesitate to land the cruelest, most unexpected, of blows as it rushes to save what it can, an obscene lust for instant wealth topping the list.
Despite the fact that many homeowners are facing repossession as "good" mortgages turn bad and many will inevitably find themselves on the dole, there is still an underlying hostility to welfarism. Particularly in the States it is the reason why the subprimers are blown up out of all proportion as sole cause of the present melt down and who should never have been given the chance to own property in the first place.
It is the property owning equivalent of why ever provide miners with decent housing as they will only use the bath to store coal in. The poor once more are made to shoulder the brunt of the blame, they having failed the property market, not the property market them. However in the last analysis the sub-prime market is also the recognition class does matter and that there is a limit to its integration within capitalism, Bush attempting to carry through a more fundamental class shift – its virtual abolition through the makeshift of property for the excluded - than was ever attempted either in the New Deal or by the Kennedys'. Built into Fannie Mae, (the federal mortgage lender which had to be renationalized all over again), was the proviso that home ownership, though all very well for responsible blue-collar workers, was not for those who lived "across the tracks". In a way it was a sort of financial analogue of squatting, the ultimate revenge of an alternative way of living, that, try as it might, was unable to be other than what it was.
The closest the working class (and sub class) come to being a capitalist class is through home ownership, more specifically through house price inflation, house flipping promising untold riches in a rising property market, a development which estranges the working class from its essential revolutionary essence and which has to be the most successful ploy ever by capitalism.
At the same time there is nothing in the history of capitalism that has so endangered its existence than this reckless unleashing of credit to the excluded - the sub prime market. There will be diabolical stories galore of how this unscrupulous creation of a hitherto untapped market strove to hang on to its asset and stave off repossession. I know of two demonic instances in which home owners became like hell hounds in their desperate bid to hang on to their homes. They were prepared to almost murder rather than relinquish possession. In March 2008 an interesting letter from someone in Maryland in the USA appeared in The Independent (20/3/08) in which we read "some blame must be shared by those who took the mortgages. Yes, some of them were innocents who were marked by unscrupulous mortgage brokers. But most of them must have known full well that they could not afford the house they were buying. They were simply greedy and hoped to pass the parcel before the inevitable crash". There must be many a fascinating tale out there of last minute home owners who, attracted by teaser rates and neglecting to read the fine print, bought at the top of the market, convinced the sky was the limit. This passport to heaven also tended to profoundly change their personality becoming, almost over night, devils in disguise and, especially when threatened with repossession, easily succoured. Particularly in the case of single women, they become a prey to carpet-baggers as ready to believe in the declarations of undying love as they were in the blague of the mortgage brokers. One of the most potent images of the 20th century is that of naked women happily skipping into a gas chamber believing they are about to enter heaven when they are going to hell. It says much about the persuasive power even the wildest promises have over desperate people about to lose everything, not least, in the case of the former, their self respect but also, in manner of speaking, their lives too. Unable to reclaim their former selves, they seem powerless to make amends, as if twisted out of shape by bitterness and a regret they can't acknowledge. If this sounds like it comes from personal experience..... well, it does.
One final word. The easy credit of the last decade inherited the mantle of the cornucopia promised by the revolts of the late sixties. It was also encouraged by the fall of the Berlin Wall behind which lay statist solution to the problems of free market capitalism, certainly not 'communism'. However with very different results, for this commodity cornucopia promised by cheap, easy credit does not lead beyond capitalist society, rather it keeps people hemmed within it and mentally enslaved to it. Only when demands the credit be repaid with interest and loud knocks sound on the door, will the real questioning begin.
And so our conclusion after this long detour is different to the one arrived at by Marx in the Grundrisse when he says "the entire credit system, and the over trading, over speculation etc. connected with it, rests on the necessity of expanding and leaping over the barrier to the circulation and the sphere of exchange". However Marx leaves us in no doubt that the credit mechanism belongs solely to capitalists and wannabe capitalists, credit being advanced in the anticipation of profit.
Marx did not really foresee a time when the consuming propensity of part of the working class would form an indispensable part of the capitalist cycle. But he does sketch a possible scenario where brawn is replaced with 'brain' - or more exactly the eye - and the working class becomes a passive overseer of industrial production, the more the latter is automated. This he links to the crises of valorization in the Grundrisse due to capitalism's inherent inability to exploit its working class further. However the shorting of circulation time by the prompt advancing of credit is also an attempt to break through the fetters of capitalist production, the creation of fictive capital being an inescapable result. In the lapidary, short hand style of the Grundrisse, Marx adds that "the highest result capital achieves in this line is, on one side, fictitious capital; on the other side, credit only appears as a new element of concentration of the destruction of capitals by individual, centralizing capitals". His eye forever fixed on the moment of irrecoverable breakdown, Marx views the highest development of the credit mechanism as leading to the dissolution of capitalism - and which now is precipitously close to ultimate ruin, nothing able to take its place other than the most dreadful of all endings. It brings with it the risk of the destruction of the human species and the dangers of an extinction to rival that of the Permian, a possibility, Marx for all his genius, unfortunately never countenanced.
It was left to moderno feudalists (like John Ruskin "the high Tory Bolshevik") to do that, their advocacy of a de novo aristocracy of intellectual Brahmins, born again Goths, meta-craftsmen and aesthetic, anti-hunting naturalists, at considerable odds with the birdbrain primogeniture of the old aristocracy, no longer capable of ruling society, conserving continuity with the past or up to the task of disciplining industrial capitalism. Ecology has never been able to rid itself of this heritage, chiefly on account of its reverence for 'organicity' (c/f Coleridge, the New Clerisy and the National Church) and age old habitat which gets confused with the retaining of the old social order and the tried and tested.
And to round off this stuttering, disjointed conclusion that carries us back to the beginning and our initial line of inquiry.............
The above development of what Marx has to say on credit with an aside on Lucaks may strike many as Byzantine. However we would reject this criticism on the ground that dialectical materialism is essentially a add-on 'science' and 'art' in continual motion and that changes daily despite the fact, especially when dealing with capitalism, there are constants that remain surprisingly fixed. This serves to set it apart from natural science proper, though the failure of natural scientists to even begin to grasp the critique of political economy (and in particular the state) catastrophically hobbles a vital force for change, especially with regard to climate scientists and conservationists.
Stu' W. January 2009
Below: Intelligent critique and reply to above from Neil Fernandez. Originally entitled: "Some comments on your article on credit and the coming epoch"
"However with growing job losses and maxed out credit cards, the dream will become less of an immanent reality, the illusion of endless credit being necessary to sell the idea as practicable in the first place. But the more straightened times become and closer, even, to a genuinely post modern, new stone age, the more it is likely to be held up as a remote heaven whose fruits were once tasted in an Eden-like credit card capitalism whose time has just ended. The ads of consumerist abundance will be endlessly played back on a continuous loop to sing of its glory, but not to sell, because there will be little to sell. Rather they will be used to enforce abstinence, a promise of better times to come and ours to have eventually, provided we continue to endlessly submit."
I'm not sure you're right that this is what will happen, as living standards go through the floor. I think it is more likely that what remains of human individual subjectivity will endure a greater fading than has hitherto been experienced. Much more schizoid conditions than the currently extremely schizoid ones. "Slavery is freedom". Microchip implants will make you free...
But if you are right, I think the ideology of consumerism would be likely to adopt a religious form. Not a more advanced category than the spectacle, understood as the modern form of religion. But a more blatantly religious form, in the sense of "here is what was lost; you must not lose sight of it; and if you make sure that you don't, then there will be a chance of regaining it - for you and yours". Possibly even an updating and renewal and rewackification of Christianity even. The memory of the involvement of the church with soup kitchens is not forgotten even yet. My grandmother got food from soup kitchens in Battersea in the 1920s. And there will definitely be more soup kitchens in the not too distant future...
You also write:
"Even if quantum is eventually disapproved it will only be in so far as Einstein amended Newton with his General Theory of Relativity".
Maybe, maybe not. If the uncertainty principle gets debunked or superseded, that may not happen analogously to the continuation of Newtonian principles except when velocities approach the velocity of light... The way you make the statement, I have also encountered from people involved in the 'scientific' psychic-research world, who say that science will expand to include psi in the way that it did for the Einsteinian revolution in physics, so that non-psi explanations remain relevant for most purposes and in most circumstances. But that need not be so.
Last comment: "tight restrictions on tobacco advertising" yes, but most marketing spend by tobacco companies is on other forms of marketing than advertising in the strict sense. Corinne Souza has intelligently speculated that this may explain the propaganda about exercise being the key to good health. The International Business Leaders Forum has also shown its filthy propaganda hands in this connection. (The IBLF set up the "Healthy Eating, Active Living Global Partnership". Companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes, McDonald's, Kraft Foods, and Nestle all participate at high level in the said IBLF. Five portions of fruit or vegetables is not much help for those who continue to eat shit food!) I think tobacco industry propaganda may also explain the talk of radon risk in the US, the "second biggest cause of lung cancer"... Meanwhile in the UK three or four times a week one or more newspapers run a huge article, usually on p.1 or p.3, heralding the new super drug that will cure obesity or whatever. I stopped reading the Guardian 2.5 years ago, but they were particularly bad at this. I'm in (small-town and rural) Ireland, where the (tragic) signs of buying into 'modernity' on the basis of huge personal debt are all over the place. Hardly a pre-1980 house left standing in some areas, outside of a few small council estates.
I've noticed that in the south-east of England, outside of the work environment, whenever someone in a petty higher-up position (or even not so) wants to put someone else down, or tell them who's on top, or threaten them, or deny them something, their language and tone are ikely to ape that of the bank or other creditor or debt collector. E.g. a stuck-up neighbour might send a letter saying "Despite your assurances". Previously, put-down or tell-'em-who's-on-top lingo was most heavily influenced by that of the school-teacher (still strong).
Companies now routinely refer to people as "applicants" when all they've done is enquire about buying something. Some prefer to say "Your application has been approved", rather than "Yes, we can do the job". Some electrical-goods shops advertise saying "Free Expert Advice - No Commission". Utility companies talk about "payment plans" even when the person isn't looking to get into debt. One electricity company wanted to do a credit check on me and when I said no (I don't know why they asked for permission) and pointed out that I just wanted to get the bills monthly and then pay them, and didn't want anything on credit, the woman insisted that paying at the end of each month meant I would be receiving the electricity on credit. (Despite this insistence on verbal bullshit, she agreed to what I wanted though. There is still a lot of scope for standing your ground. Vodafone tried to do me recently, by refusing to replace a £30 phone handset that broke down after a few months. I threatened to sue them; they ignored my letters; so I sued them usingthe small-claims procedure. They didn't bother responding, so I won by walkover. Loads of time wasted but at least a bit of warm feeling during the fight and at the end).
In the north there is a big furniture outlet that only sells on credit and won't accept payment in cash or cleared funds. I got this from somewhere likeor, where there are some interesting facts among all the 'poor suffering landlord' crap.
Another thing worth saying: two of the most important bits of social engineering in the UK in our time have both involved major increases in the amount and scope of personal debt, basically a financial-sector enclosure operation against an ever-growing period of people's lives:
1) the growth in owner-occupation since the sale of council houses began in the 1970s, all based on loans.
2) the big expansion of higher 'education' since 1990, also all based on loans
(The tabloids and the propaganda on programmes such as 'The Archers' do a lot to promote the 'gap year' to the lower orders. Be like the middle classes! Send your teenager around the world before they go to college! Unfortunately people don't seem to take on board that the middle classes pay their kids' debts off when they leave college, or just stump up
loads of money each year without debt being involved).
Below and the future for credit everywhere? Photos of the Greek riots December 2008 and still on-going
Burning the giant Christmas tree in front of the Athens parliament. December 2008. A little later Greek insurgents hung bags of rubbish and assorted trash on other Xmas trees throughout Greek cities. This inspiring example was taken up by Icelandic rebels outside their own discredited Parliament in Reykjavik but without the same audacious edge.
Burning mannequins in a Thessaloniki dept store. December 2008
Reclaiming statues from the dead hand of reification. Above: Riges Feraios, a Greek rebel around the time of the French Revolution of 1789
Bring 'em on everywhere.....more CCRs (credit crunch riots). And through the bonfires: More concrete perspectives emerging of total social/personal/environmental revolution?
Stuart Wise 2008