A discussion of globalism cannot hope to explain the crisis of the capitalist global economy in solely analytical and immanent fashion. It must also strive to develop categories and models that chart avenues of subjectivation and political mobilization beyond this logic of inherent necessity.
The philosopher and sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, the Cairo-based curator and writer Sarah Rifky, and Kerstin Stakemeier discuss such strategies in a conversation conducted via email, referring to examples from politics as well as the arts.
This email conversation addresses the current state of capitalist globalism. Rather than assuming that it refers to a flawed but ultimately functional form of general reproduction, capitalist globalism is posited here as an ongoing crisis-ridden state, which, in fact, has long abandoned its function for the general reproduction of societies and individuals. Thus globalism might characterize a worldwide economic system in limbo, a mix of feudal, Fordist, post-Fordist, and financialized terms of production that lack an integrated and actualized universality. What if we do not discuss the global series of political, economic, and cultural ruptures and insurrections of the last decade as disintegrations of a dominant European modernity, but rather invert this perspective and face a globalism that is united in its differentiated forms of economic catastrophism as much as in its need for and practice of renegotiations of subjective and societal forms of being? What political, aesthetic, and artistic choices does such a perspective possibly entail. What dangers does it evoke?
To discuss these issues, Kerstin Stakemeier invited two interlocutors, Paris-based philosopher and sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato, and Cairo-based curator and writer Sarah Rifky.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Lazzarato’s writings have been essential to debates around “immaterial labor” and more generally post-Fordist terms of production. In his 2011 book “The Making of the Indebted Man” Lazzarato advanced an understanding of the current crisis of capitalism that puts the figure of the indebted subject at its center. Lazzarato proposes that all capitalist regimes are centered on their subject formations and that what we are facing cannot be grasped in economic terms alone, but has to be understood first and foremost as a fundamental crisis of the subject. In her writings and curatorial praxis, Rifky has been taking subjectivities in crisis as her starting point, delineating the discontinuities, breaks, and leaps that open between her own involvements in the contemporary art world and what she has termed “the ongoing insurrection” in Egypt. Alongside Jens Maier-Rothe she is the co-director and initiator of Beirut, an art initiative and exhibition space founded in Cairo in 2012.
Kerstin Stakemeier: Maurizio, in your book, “The Making of the Indebted Man”, you characterize the current state of financialized austerity in Europe as one that fundamentally transforms the previous schemes of capitalist crises, arguing that “from one financial crisis to the next, we have now entered a period of permanent crisis, which we shall call ‘catastrophe’, to refer to the discontinuity of the concept of crisis itself.” This maps out a political situation in which the all-encompassing ideology of relentless capitalist progress disintegrates, and in which regionalisms and local antagonisms become stronger and stronger.
Maurizio Lazzarato: We have been living in a state of ongoing crisis for 40 years. So crisis is no longer the flip side of growth. All we know are variations of the crisis’s intensity, which has increased since 2008, and what they call getting out of the crisis, and relaunching growth, will merely be a change in its intensity.
In any event, we move from one crisis to the next: From the financial crisis, to the ecological crisis, to the population crisis, to the food crisis, and so on. The crisis we are currently experiencing is not only an economic crisis, but also a crisis of governmentality; a crisis involving the production of subjectivity. If capitalism launches (subjective) models the way the automobile industry launches new series, then the major challenge of capitalist politics lies in the organization of economic, technological, and social flows with the production of subjectivity, in such a way that the political economy is nothing other than a “subjective economy”.
In that sense a New Deal is impossible, because it would necessitate a resubjectivization, which this debt economy became unable to provide. We are heading toward a post-democratic situation, which may/will slide toward a state of low-intensity internal war (for which Greece seems like a test bench within Europe).
Sarah Rifky: Greece is close to Africa. What we in Egypt are heading toward is still undetermined. It is a continuous process of renewal of insurgency, if you want; post- and predemocratic are not oppositions but become situated perspectives in this regard. There is no denouement, only a beginning. It is not a tragedy, but a coming to terms with this renewal of crisis. It’s a world that is incomplete and indeterminate. We don’t know tomorrow, but we are committed to today.
We cannot be caught in the tracks of memory, which is nothing but imagination (backward) and of what creates a halt in “A Fluid State” – a term widely used to describe the situation in Egypt in 2011 and onward. A fluid state is formless; it is not a movement that can be halted. We must recognize the formlessness of this state that is not linear (or chronological) to make action possible.
Stakemeier: This (in)voluntary obligation to the present tense that you describe might also contain a more transversal idea of practical solidarity in thought and action, which counteracts the nationalization of politics propelled by the crisis. That all our statements included decisive distinctions of the present from the past tense is, I would guess, not least because nostalgic recollections of a seemingly less destabilized past are so dangerously omnipresent. You can see this in the relentless returns of modernisms in contemporary art as much as in the call for traditional values in vastly different societies. And Maurizio’s argument is true: Society cannot be recast from capital but only from the social, but this social seems to be very much in question right now, as the reproduction of capitalist societies and the reproduction of individuals in this society seem to run counter to one another. While both today rely on what Maurizio has called “debt economy” and what others, like Christian Marrazzi, have termed “financialized capitalism”, the latter seems to have lost its systemic centrality for the former. The production of human labor is no longer perceived to be the central source of surplus value, as Karl Marx argued in “Capital, Vol. 1.” Individual subjectivization thus cannot rely on labor as the source of its social recognition. And mobilizing political insurgency against the reproduction of financialized capitalism via the category of labor, as the central category of reproduction in this society, becomes a minoritarian position.
That is why the extremely contemporary vision, which you Sarah, just charted seems really productive. It brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s notion of a “positive barbarism”. Are we talking here about an actualization of that concept?
Rifky: Perhaps. Crisis is shorter than catastrophe, which amounts to a texture of experience that would eradicate this poverty, which is where my love, my drive, my desire, comes from, and from where I start anew. Maybe we are disillusioned, but the everyday realities that make up the culture of debt are very differently nuanced in, say, Africa and America. There is a quality to experience that emerges through crisis; a conviviality in coming together when everything else is falling apart.
As Hala Galal has put it, insurgency as experience is a little like house cleaning: You do a little bit every day, once a month you give the house a proper cleaning and every six months or so, you turn everything upside down. This redefines the notion of insurgency in somewhat banal everyday terms; and it redefines activism which at times we must resist, because it precludes the position of doubt, as Tamer El Said would say. Doubt allows us to experience and not to overdetermine things too quickly bypassing imagination. I think the most that can come from this way of describing things, even if it marginalizes us intellectually, culturally, or politically, is the possibility of reimagining a form of politics that does not necessarily seek power, and thus resigns itself to the nongovernmental. I don’t know if this would be an expression of autonomous subjectivities, that are not fixed or trapped within one political and economic reality. One could imagine a stronger engagement with the nongovernmental, but it is almost impossible to think beyond the current condition. There are too many examples of failure that surround us.
Lazzarato: In an emblematic way, Japan represents the impossibility of getting out of the crisis that has gripped it since the 1990s, without producing a new model of subjectivity. Like all the world’s nations, Japan today is a post-Fordist economy, but more than any other country it is having the greatest difficulty in replacing the Fordist “capital of subjectivity” (full employment, lifelong jobs, work ethic, et cetera) which made its fortune. It is not enough to inject astronomical sums of money into the economy, it is not enough to stabilize the banks, threaten the security of the labor market, lower wages, and so forth to create growth. New social, economic, and political conditions must go hand in hand with a subjectivity that meets and underwrites them. In this sense the Japanese financial and economic crisis is also primarily a crisis of the governing structures of general management. Economy and subjectivity go hand in hand.
Stakemeier: Then post-Fordism is no longer the only paradigm under which we can discuss our current state of being. It lingers on within the present tense – I mean the neoliberal enforcements of a marketable subjectivism – but so do modernisms and refeudalizations. None of these tropes offer any future perspective. They do not describe a form of subjective reproduction, but one of running on empty. The figures of subjective and objective non-simultaneity of the simultaneous through which Ernst Bloch discussed National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, becomes a powerful model in this regard. Our contemporaneity is filled with past tenses, with subjectivities that are not actualized, with systemic relations which fortify dated power structures. Which epoch people are now living in largely depends on their social status and geographical positioning, some might live in what resembles a bourgeois modernism, neoliberal flexibilizations, or even Baroque extravaganzas, but for most people early capitalism is having a late return. So there might be “progress”, but it has no mutualizing virtue but rather exerts decentering dynamisms. This entails revolutionary perspectives, like the ones Sarah has pointed out, which do seek forms of intensification and autonomization “below” external power structures, but it also bears the danger of regressive formations of those power structures, like the rise of nationalist forces in Greece.
Lazzarato: Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have entered a new political phase, that calls to mind the failure of liberalism in the Belle Époque, around 1870–1914, which ushered in the two world wars, fascism, and the Great Depression. As the debt economy gradually grows deeper and deeper, governmentality becomes more authoritarian and repressive, and conflict management turns into a simple problem of public order.
This intensification of the class struggle is being accompanied by a bolstering of forms of neo-archaism involving national identity and xenophobia which, if they no longer deal with subjectivity with the same force as a century ago, encourage the rise of forms of regional nationalism (northern Italy, Belgium, former Yugoslavia, and so forth). People are still using the molds of three monotheistic religions, which are undergoing a revival of fundamentalism. Faced with the current void of subjectivization, there is an effort to rekindle the “value of labor” in a world dominated by shareholders and mass unemployment, in which one becomes increasingly aware that there is no spare subjectivity.
Rifky: This determines our action only as part of a “class” in itself, a notion that has been contaminated, shifted, and been made extremely oblique under the current conditions of capital and its corresponding politics. It is hard to make a statement, particularly now, as we are witnessing the last turn of events in Egypt, which have inflamed and given much more acute rise to the manifestation of what Maurizio is talking about – not only the revival of fundamentalism, but also a highly polarized politics.
Lazzarato: Yes, and from here, a series of existential questions arise: What are the conditions of a political and existential break at a time in which the production of subjectivity represents the primary and most important capitalist production? What are the specific instruments of subjectivity production for foiling its industrial and mass manufacture organized by state enterprises? What organizational methods are to be constructed for a process of subjectivization, to escape the hold of both subjections and enslavements?
In the 1980s, by way of different itineraries, Michel Foucault and Félix Guattari described the production of subjectivity and the formation of the “relation to self” as the contemporary political issues, which alone could point to ways out of the dead end in which we were caught up. They discovered, each in their own way, a new dimension that could be reduced to relations of power and relations of knowledge. The “relation to self” (Foucault) as a force of self-positioning and existential assertion (Guattari) derives (in the twofold sense of the French verb dériver: to stem from, and to swerve away) from relations of power and relations of knowledge. If the subjective dimension derives from relations of power and knowledge, it does not depend on them.
For Foucault, starting from “self-concern” does not mean pursuing the dandy’s ideal of a “beautiful life”, but raising the question of the overlap between “an aesthetics of existence” and a corresponding politics. The problems of “another life and another world” are posed together based on a “militant” life for which the precondition is a break with conventions, habits, and established values. Nor does Guattari’s “aesthetic paradigm” prompt an aestheticization of the social and the political, but rather turns the production of subjectivity into practice and into the main preoccupation of a new way of being militant and a new way of being politically organized. Whence the recourse not to cognitive, informational, and linguistic instruments and paradigms, but to political instruments and paradigms that are ethical and aesthetic, Guattari’s “aesthetic paradigm” and Foucault’s “aesthetics of existence”.
Stakemeier: Absolutely, Guattari’s formulation of art as a “whole subjective creativity, which traverses the generations and oppressed peoples, ghettos, minorities”, which he put forth in “Chaosmosis” in 1992, seems helpful in our context. Not least because it shifts the political center of art from being a representational object to becoming the appearance of an inherently transversal life-form. And there are a couple of interesting contemporary approaches to those questions. Take, for example, Juliane Rebentisch’s book “Die Kunst der Freiheit”, in which she delineates the “aestheticization of politics” as a necessary and productive process, one that might lead to a different understanding of autonomy in instead of autonomy from. I think those processes, and an aesthetic understanding that is not evacuated from the political, productive, and reproductive spheres of our societies, is intrinsic to defining a political position, or, for that matter, a praxis of autonomization or resubjectivization within the fundamental crisis of global capitalism. As Maurizio said in the beginning, the system is not reformable, there is no new New Deal. But what then does a political and aesthetic subjectivization in the middle of this catastrophe entail?
Rifky: In Egypt, parallel to that we are experiencing, a new wave of “institutions” is being founded, in art and in culture, and there is a haze of question that we place under the framework of “what is an institution?” or “what can it be?” or “how do we organize?”. It often starts with a means of organizing ourselves together toward something. It is clear that for self-organizing to occur, a self needs to be identified. The process of identification, which is interpretative, has something to do with how we envision the future, and that seems parallel somewhat to how finance determines the future or holds it captive in a certain way. For extended moments at a time, it is possible to exist without feeling guilty about being in debt to friends, each other, et cetera. I have to think of conversations with Lina Attallah, who runs Mada Masr, a Cairo-based English language news website that was born out of crisis or inevitability after Egypt Independent was shut down (laying off 35 journalists in one go.) The question of institutional survival gets enmeshed with a sense of entitlement and faith in what is “therapeutically shared.” The precarity is overcome in humor, in celebration of what we work toward. That we are all 15 percent short of our annual budget this year can mean a little or a lot. In some ways, we are flirting with insolvency. In small ways, knowing that there is a possibility in refusing to pay a phone bill at a peak moment of revolt, stating one’s reasons, and being granted that right of refusal. We share discussions with institutional therapists. Mohammed Abdallah, who has worked with numerous young institutions, can tell you how we will all exclaim “It is what we want to believe to be true!” He elaborates on that in trying to find metaphors for self-organization in Egypt and elsewhere today: We all want to be like living systems, more than machines. In some respects, “It’s moving from I to It”, a project title from the London-based initiative FormContent. It evokes the role of being brokers between chaos and an organized cultural economy. In some ways, this institution-hype is also a refusal to take on responsibility that is solely embedded in our individual selves as “human resources,” as flexible agents with self-reliance and being the measure of our own success and productivity. We organize; we institute, we become accountable to one another, we are able to create a place from which to respond to one another, to assume positions and to assume responsibility. Everyone is an owner, everyone is an entrepreneur, and everyone is an artist. This relinquishing of One, this being an artist, a curator, an author, and becoming It (to me, short for Institution), performing an apparatus (like a collection of notes, not like capitalism) – even if fictitiously conceived – allows us to take care of ourselves and each other. A network of interdependent nodes, or three and four people, ten at most, interconnecting, and seeking to be identified: There is no union, syndicate, category, class. At Beirut we are working with other institutions on a newly formed network, APRIL (an acronym for action platform for responsibility, institutions, love or learning). To sidestep a little this great dependence that we have on ourselves, each on their own, and in this coming together, it negotiates geography. It doesn’t matter if this institution is in Lisbon, London, Derry, New York, or Cairo.
Lazzarato: Such reuses of a revolutionary discourse and praxis can only be made at the crossroads of a method of action that is opposed to the policy of financialization and debt at the same time as it invents new methods and new life aesthetics, and a new way of living in our respective temporalities. Politics and existence, just like art and existence, must nurture each other, but, as we have all argued in different ways, by changing not only what we understand by politics, but also what we understand as art.
Stakemeier: Exactly, and a reconstructed understanding of institutions in such a sense seems extremely productive to me in that regard. Look, for example, at how Karl Marx defined institutions, as “Vergegenständlichungen der politischen Gesinnung” (objectifications of political attitudes). If we try to transpose this understanding into a situation in which the crisis of subjectivity lies at the forefront of the capitalist crisis we experience, and, more importantly, where such resubjectivizations, such attempts to assume, as Sarah put it, “responsibility”, offer the only perspective to underrun this crisis called capitalism, then a revised understanding of self-institutionalization seems like a highly significant starting point. It allows for a politics of solidarity, of collectivizing actions, which does not build its cohesion on how its participants are identified through or in capital, but rather on how they individuate from it. In this, the models that Foucault and Guattari suggested, and which Maurizio was mentioning, largely refigure in what Sarah describes as her practice in Cairo – but from a different vantage point. Where in the 1970s and 1980s formations of countercultures and subcultures emitted the sense of new focal points of anti-systemic action, the neoliberal integration of such structures in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as the recent obliteration of their means of survival forces us to reconsider those models – maybe by ways of placing oneself in the center of this society, while practicing something like joined expanding introspections together. Which includes a rather different understanding of the “public”.
Let’s refocus this question for a moment more specifically toward art as one form of production of and through subjectivization: How can artistic productions and their reception be understood as precise figures of such “institutionalizations”, such “existential assertions”? I do not mean the question “in how far is art an institution”, that’s purely descriptive, but rather, where in art’s history and art’s present tense can figures of production, of speech of action that model such dynamics be discerned?
Rifky: This question offers opportunities for insightful murmurs and discussion – it would be hard to define a short response to this. I think the characteristics of such an institutionalization are instances that work “against time”, both within the structures of our own forms of organization and as a concentration on occurrences in works, or situations that can only be decrypted when we apply ourselves to them with a certain mindfulness or presentness. This extends from the course of conception, to the process of reflecting or making art, to how we encounter it as its public, as its reader. There is a gene in art that advances this in its own right, perhaps, a refusal, a sidestepping, a bowing out of a determined action with a fixed outcome within a given economy. Upon reading your question, though, I feel compelled to bring up Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s enthusiasm for poetry as the excess in language, or poetry as the nonexchangeable in language, that is able to give new life to language through which financial capitalism can be addressed, or even interrupted, overcome. When thinking of art, which of course also has voices (also in the financial budgetary sense, as the Italians would use “voices” in Excel sheets), art exceeds the market and is able to interrupt and break with it. Art in that sense is neither only representational nor purely constative (descriptive of something), but actually “does something”. It does something without doing something. I have to laugh and stop here: think of Song Dong’s poetic Chinese-to-English translations, poetic virtues, of doing nothing. Doing Nothing does something.
Lazzarato: The sense of what is “art” certainly has to be expanded. Guattari’s “aesthetic paradigm” does not refer first and foremost to art, but to forms of social creativity and to the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose most successful opus was undoubtedly his way of “living in the times”, and his way of living, period. I am specifically interested in Duchamp because he practiced a “refusal of work”, which had to do with art. We said that it was difficult to transpose this motto into intellectual, cognitive labor, et cetera, but Duchamp shows us the opposite, because with his refusal of artistic work, as it started to be codified in the twentieth century, he completely demythologized art and saved the artist, but that is an artist who must carry on an underground activity to escape from the art market. The idea of opening a “Hospice for Idlers” that takes in only people who declare that they “never work” seems to me to be an idea that is as revolutionary as the production of “works of art” within such an underground activity.