November 19, 2009

Manuel DeLanda - Bailouts, Democracy, and the Impoverished Left

Manuel DeLanda gave this lecture in conjunction with Documenta 11's "Democracy Unrealized" conference in 2001.  Having just seen it for the first time a few a weeks ago, I was immediately struck by his comments on corporate bailouts, given seven years before the federal government took on the toxic assets of Bear Stearns, AEG, and General Motors:
“The degree to which giantism itself allows some organizations to conduct extortion is the forced bailout of failing or mismanaged firms, such as the bailout of Chrysler in the 1980s.  In this case, 'large scale' allowed both the privatization of profits and socialization of lossesThere was nothing to lose for Chrysler since the government was there infusing cash into it despite the fact that it was their own fault. And the reason they do this is because otherwise the economy, when such a large entity fails, would have been disrupted.” (22)
The only debate that has aroused much electoral fervor among the population lately is this debate over who the federal government should bail out, Wall Street or Main Street.  But if giant investment banks and corporations are too big to fail, as DeLanda suggests, Wall Street and Main Street become inextricably linked.  With this popular cry to bailout homeowners being the most radical demand made during the economic upheaval, capitalism is clearly more vital a force today than democracy.  Seemingly, no radical solutions or alternative can be found to our global system.  "Voodoo" economic policies provide no real way to extract the survival of homeowners on Main Street from the prosperity and success of Wall Street.  People have no choice but to place their hopes in the security of "anti-market" cartels, and to simply wait for their share of the wealth to trickle down.  With no viable alternatives put forth by the radical Left, it's not at all surprising there is little electoral interest in progressive politics. I recalled Žižek's article, "To Each According to His Greed," in last month's Harper's:
“There is a real possibility that the primary victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the Left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone. It was the Left that was effectively caught out, as if recent events were staged with a calculated risk in order to demonstrate that, even at a time of shattering crisis, there is no viable alternative to capitalism.... When we are transfixed by something like the bailout, we should bear in mind that since it is actually a form of blackmail, we must resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus wound ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting-out, we should control our fury and transform it into an icy determination to think—to think things through in a really radical way, and to ask what kind of a society renders such blackmail possible.”
DeLanda goes on to provide new ways to think about our "kind of society" by disputing two traditional conceptions on the Left about capitalism:

1) the historical concept of Fordism as forbearer to mass production in modern capitalism:
“The very idea of mass production and the industrial discipline it requires is not of bourgeois origin – I cannot stress this more ... But rather the reality of the matter is industrial discipline was born in military arsenals in 18th century France, and institutionalized as a practice in American arsenals and armories in the early 19th century. In other words, it had already been institutionalized in armories at least 80 years before Henry Ford, hence the absurdity of the term, Fordism.” (35)
2) the conceptualization of democracy, society, and capitalism as "mythological wholes."  DeLanda views these "systematic totalities" instead as a "nested set" of "social entities," and opposes the concept of human history as "a single temporal stream" of "great societies" and "great individuals."  Instead, following in the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, he suggests "a multiple stream with separate historical processes occurring in parallel, or at the same time, at different temporal scales.”  Individuals, relatively small on the temporal scale, interact and organize themselves into institutions.  Those institutions, larger and longer-lasting in scale than individuals, interact and organize into cities, and cities into nations, etc.
“Besides the idea of a multi-level historical process, treating each level as emerging from interacting populations at the level below, allows us to include more heterogeneity in our models of social and historical phenomena.” (58)
By reviewing the history of capitalism outside its mythological functions, and looking more intricately at the interactive processes at play in each social entity (as opposed to its perceived essence), those on the Left may finally be able to think of new ways to progressively engage a rapidly changing global system with radical ideas of substance.

Manuel DeLanda's book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History had a huge impact on the way I think about social and historical processes.  Originally from Mexico City, DeLanda moved to New York City in the late 70's where he was a graffiti artist and an experimental filmmaker in what was later called the "Cinema of Transgression" movement.  He created such film classics as Shit (1975), Song of a Bitch (1976), Saliva Dildo (1976), Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1976), Incontinence (1978), Ismism (1979), Raw Nerves (1980), Harmful or Fatal if Swallowed (1982), Judgement Day (1983), Porking Jesus, Public Enema and My Dick.

Excerpt from Ismism - (the original film is completely silent)

1 comment:

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