Anticapitalism and Culture

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Book. Jeremy Gilbert. Anticapitalism and Culture. Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Berg, 2008

Reviews anti-capitalist protest movements since WWII, with the tools of cultural studies.


3 Another World is Possible: The Anti-Capitalist Movement 75

4 (Anti)Capitalism and Culture 107

5 Ideas in Action: Rhizomatics, Radical Democracy and the Power of the Multitude

7 Beyond the Activist Imaginary: Nomadic Strategies for the New Partisans 203

Conclusion—Liberating the Collective 237


From the intro:

"The first two chapters of the book make up a partial, idiosyncratic, political history of cultural studies, whose argument runs something like this: cultural studies began life as a self-consciously radical discipline which was infl uenced by its proximity to, and its dynamic relationship with, the politics of the British labour movement. Cultural studies wasn’t, in itself, a revolutionary political project or a substitute for any other kind of political activism, but it tried to look at issues like literature, social history, popular culture and political change as all connected to each other, and it attempted to look at them all from the point of view of an understanding of society and a set of values broadly derived from the traditions of the workers’ movement. At the same time, it always sought to generate new insights into the present and historical workings of culture and power that might challenge or transform some of the received assumptions of the labour movement. In particular, cultural studies emerged from the concerns of one strand within that movement, the so-called New Left. As it evolved during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, most research in cultural studies continued to be engaged with those concerns. At the same time, the ideas and priorities of the New Left themselves also evolved. Most importantly, the emergence (or re- emergence) of movements such as feminism, anti-racism and gay liberation brought new sets of concerns and priorities. In particular, these movements brought to light new forms of power relationships which cultural studies scholars had to take into account in their various investigations, but they also brought new risks and problems for the political Left which many of those scholars sought to confront. These investigations within cultural studies intersected with a much wider theoretical interrogation of left thought, which the chapter outlines under the heading of the anti-essentialist turn. Despite the intellectual richness of this moment, by the 1990s most of the organised Left—from the socialist and communist movements to the New Social Movements—had ceased to be viable as coherent, consistent projects for social transformation. The defeat of communism, the dispersal of the women’s movement and the hegemony of neoliberalism all consolidated a situation in which there simply were no such radical movements for cultural studies to maintain such dialogues with. This has not prevented cultural studies from growing, proliferating and extending its project and its reach. Nor has it prevented the best work in the fi eld from continuing to offer incisive analyses of contemporary culture in its many aspects. But it does mean that cultural studies has not had the benefi t of that dynamic dialogue with radical political movements that was the source of some of its energy in the past. The second chapter therefore suggests that a dialogue between cultural studies and the anti-capitalist movement might be a good thing.

Chapter 3 outlines and refl ects upon the emergence of this movement, which is sometimes called anti-capitalist or anti-globalisation or global-justice or altermondialiste. Since the early 1990s a range of projects and institutions have arisen around the world which try to challenge the global dominance of liberal capitalism, and which are informed by a set of libertarian and egalitarian values very similar to those which typifi ed the New Left. This anti-capitalism is different from the traditional labour and socialist movements in ways which were to some extent prefi gured and called for by the ideas of the New Left, and by the ideas of philosophers and theorists associated with the anti-essentialist turn. The chapter therefore argues that this movement can be said to be radical democratic in its aspirations, provided that we clear up some common confusions as to what the term radical democracy means. On the other hand, this movement is informed by, at best, some woefully simplistic ideas about culture and political strategy. It is precisely this poverty of thought which the best cultural studies work of the past has often tried to remedy in radical movements. As such, Chapter 3 contends that it is worth thinking through some issues about culture and political strategy from a position informed by the legacy of cultural studies and the concerns of anti-capitalism.

Chapter 4 considers a range of different ways of conceptualising the relationship between capitalism and culture, and it considers reasons as to why one might or might not want to take up a political or analytical position which is explicitly anti-capitalist. Although it rejects a classically Marxist anti-capitalism, it fi nds good reasons for taking up a position which sees capitalism in general—and neoliberalism in particular—as inimical to any democratic culture, and worth opposing on those terms. It concludes, however, that the anti-capitalism of the movement of movements might have to be mobilised under names less abstract than anti-capitalism if it is to prove politically effective in concrete contexts.

Chapter 5 tries to think about what would be involved in developing such a position, by comparing the theoretical ideas of a number of philosophers who have written in a spirit close to that of both New Left cultural studies and of the anti-capitalist movement. This chapter is unashamedly abstract in its approach because getting beyond the kind of simplistic thinking about culture and politics which often typifi es the anti-capitalist movement demands some rigourous abstract thought. The chapter expounds some of the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, Laclau and Mouffe and Hardt and Negri in terms that will be comprehensible to a reader with no great prior familiarity with their work; the chapter also offers some rigourous comparison of those ideas. The chapter organises its discussion of these ideas partly in terms of a number of themes which are central to cultural studies—creativity, complexity, power and hegemony—because one of its aims is to think through what the use of those ideas might be for engaged cultural analysis. The chapter largely concludes that, despite the tendency of these writers and their supporters to polemicise against each other, their ideas can all be deployed very usefully in the attempt to think through what a contemporary, radical democratic, post-Marxism might be both for cultural studies and anti-capitalist politics.

Chapter 6 takes some of these ideas and tries to use them to make an analysis of key confi gurations of power in contemporary British culture. Ultimately, it asks what scope there might be for effective opposition to neoliberalism in the United Kingdom today, by looking at the ways in which neoliberalism is both implemented and destabilised in the current context. I would argue that it is this kind of so-called conjunctural analysis which is the core task of cultural studies, and that this is what cultural studies, at its best, can do for a radical movement such as anti-capitalism; to try to map its terrain and warn it of obstacles. I don’t claim that such a task can be undertaken with any authority by one person in one chapter of a largely theoretical work such as this one. I would also argue that a great deal of current work going on in cultural studies already does this—although it may not be explicit or even conscious about for whom the work it being done. The point of the chapter in itself is therefore not to offer a defi nitive analysis, but to illustrate the kind of thing that cultural studies can do with the kinds of theories outlined in the previous chapter.

Chapter 7 continues the effort to think through the major obstacles to the success of any contemporary anti-capitalism, but it does so in a largely theoretical register. This chapter tries to deconstruct what it calls ‘the activist imaginary’. Put simply, ‘the activist imaginary’ is an attitude which makes a fetish of the so-called outsider status of activists: this attitude prevents activists from really engaging in the kind of risky politics which might produce real change (because real change would ultimately threaten the outsider status of activists). The chapter discerns elements of this activist imaginary in elements of contemporary political theory and tries to deconstruct them on their own abstract terms, which takes a while, but is necessary. It ultimately argues for the importance of an anti-capitalist partisanship which is not tied to any political or social identity, and for a strategic orientation in radical-democratic thought and practice which is not tied to any singular homogenous strategy. Once again, it finds that the polemics between supporters of Deleuze and Guattari and Laclau and Mouffe tend to obscure important points of agreement between them, which might be better treated as opportunities for mutual-intensifi cation as opposed to sterile sectarianism."


From chapter 5:

We have surveyed several different manifestations of that movement, and so we should now ask what it is, at a more abstract level, that they have in common with each other, and what makes them different from other forms of resistance to hegemonic formations, neoliberalism, or capitalist social relations. Here, two features are most striking. Firstly, we can note the refusal to subsume multifarious struggles into one overarching identity. Secondly, we can identify the demand for concentrations of power (both State power and corporate power) to be broken down by the proliferation of sites for participative decision-making. On the one hand, we have a radical pluralism, and on the other hand, a pursuit of democratisation as a radical process of participation. Following these two lines of thought, we can conceptualise this politics in terms of some key bodies of philosophical work which we will examine in much more detail in subsequent chapters, but which it will be useful to consider here briefly.

Firstly, radical pluralism and refusal of identity bring to mind Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari’s famous celebration of the minor (Deleuze & Guattari 1988: 291-3). Deleuze & Guattari make a fascinating distinction between ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ which has nothing to do with numerical discrepancies. ‘Majorities’ are those identities, those modes of being, which occupy the powerful position of the norm within any given culture. They are always resistant to possibilities of change, always defined by their position of dominance over the not-norm. So woman is always a minor position in a patriarchal culture, even if there are more women than men (hence it is still common for histories of ‘democracy’ to treat women’s suffrage as a relatively unimportant issue, or to ignore the fact that Athens, the supposed cradle of democracy, was a slave society in which a tiny proportion of the actual population were allowed to vote). Following this logic, a ‘minoritarian’ politics could not be one which aspired merely to occupy the position of ‘majority’, but which sought to free all minorities and all fixed majorities from their static conditions. Now, crucially, this is not a matter of ‘identity politics’ promoting a rainbow coalition of oppressed groups, each defending its pure status as Woman, or black, or gay. Rather it is a matter of seeking the destabilisation of all such fixed positions: ‘only a minority is capable of serving as the active medium of a becoming, but under such conditions that it ceases to be a definable aggregate in relation to the majority (Deleuze & Guattari 1988: 291)’

From this point of view, the ‘movement of movements’ might be conceived as a loose assemblage of minorities, waging war against all majority. So does this mean that it would have to be conceived as opposed to all democracy as such?

Well, that depends how we conceptualise democracy. If we imagine that ‘democracy’ means simply ‘majority rule’, then of course Deleuze & Guattari could have no truck with it. But what if we conceptualise it differently? ‘the notion of radical and plural democracy...will be central to our argument from this point on...Pluralism is radical only to the extent that each term of the plurality of identities finds within itself the principle of its own validity, without this having to be sought in a transcendent or underlying positive ground for the hierarchy of meaning of them all and the source and guarantee of their legitimacy. And this radical pluralism is democratic to the extent that the autoconstitutivity of each one of its terms is the result of displacements of the egalitarian imaginary. Hence, the project for plural and radical democracy is nothing other than the struggle for the maximum autonomisation of spheres’ (Laclau & Mouffe 1985: 167)

Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe here offer an account of ‘radical democracy’ which is entirely compatible with the minoritarian perspective. From this point of view, radical democracy does not imply ‘the tyranny of the majority’, but an ongoing effort to maximise autonomy for groups and individuals, against the rule of either capital or state institutions. It therefore seems hard not to argue that the anti-capitalist movement is, as much as anything, a movement for radical democracy.

Here is one point to keep in mind. Whichever vocabulary we choose, this minoritarian / radical democratic perspective depends on one thing. It depends on a rejection of all old-fashioned ways of thinking about politics which see ‘society’ as a single coherent thing with a centre, or a top, a singular locus of power, which a radical movement must seek to occupy and control. Neither government, nor control of the means of production, nor anything else, can be seen as the one source of power and the one objective of struggle. In other words, although we may continue to regard all the elements of world culture as connected and related in complex ways, we can no longer think of society, or capitalism, or anything else, as simple totalities. This will prove to be a very important point later in the book. For now though, let’s move on from this assessment of the abstract politics of radical democratic anti-capitalism, to look briefly at the ways in which the movement thinks and acts in regard to one of this book’s key issues: ‘culture’ itself."