Anti-capitalism with a smiley face?
A review of No Logo - Naomi Klein (Flamingo, 2001); Silent Takeover. Global capitalism and the death of democracy - Noreena Hertz (Random House, 2001); Empire - Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard, 2000)
Whatever the merits of Naomi Klein's politics there can be little doubt that No Logo was a timely political intervention. In the theatre of struggles against the effects of globalisation, Klein has become like a war correspondent, a beaming figure interpreting the political meaning behind these events. As its publicity suggests the book became part of a movement. But which movement? That of young activists devising ingenious means of' publicising their protests against multinationals and trans- national alliances of political forces? Or the movement within the media that has sought to mould the collective impression of these protests?
It does not seem to have been activists who made No Logo 'part of a movement'. Rather it seems largely the media itself that propelled Klein and her particular take on activism to fame. The reasons for this are relatively clear; with the growth of diverse and often contradictory forms of 'anti-capitalism' society at large has needed to reduce these either to something recognisable: read 'its 1968 all over again', or ideologically containable: read 'criminals, thugs and rioters'. Over the last few years groups across the spectrum of the traditional and radical left have all made particular concessions towards aligning with a broad 'anti-capitalist' movement. With all manner and diversity of groups jockeying to lead the carnival procession what was needed was a politics of moderation or a moderate politics. What more suited to a symbolic politics than a politics of the symbol?
Klein builds an image of capitalism driven by marketing, corporate identities and brand imagery in the West that sits on the bed rock of exploitation in the South and the third World. She diligently pursues the most familiar large corporations around the globe highlighting their excesses and abuses of power. Carefully' covering a wide range of commercial practice: companies brokering promotional contracts with schools and universities; the proliferation of temporary or low paid contracts wrapped up in the language of choice; the horrors of sweat-shop labour,' Klein produces a picture of the modern world throttled by unaccountable and profiteering capitalists. However alongside these developments is given a story of resistance of young people seeing through the media marketed hype and creatively shaming, naming, prosecuting and organising against the power of commercial society. No Logo is not just a list of facts, but is peppered with statements from companies and activists alike, presenting an image of a world in hot contestation, as if the political was being reborn - recast as the fight between staid economic interests and an idealistic youth.
Behind the high-rise rhetoric of Klein's political landscape there is the sinister shanty town of real politics. Fuelling No Logo's indignation against unethical consumption is the implicit idea that hoodwinked consumers in the west are responsible for the working conditions of producers in the third world. In the discourse of anti-capitalism this means that the genuineness of anti-corporate activism lies in the extent of our rejection of the perks of western consumer society. If we expose the criminal production practices of major high-street retailers, the power of the manufactured image of those companies will be subverted. Almost over night the onerous school ground behaviour of judging people by what they wear has been instantiated as a form of politics itself.
To wear certain trainers, a well established criterion of social inclusion for youth across the globe, has been reposed as a sign of complicity with the heady world of exploitation. Counterpoised to Ali G like carriers of commodity sign values, Klein's young anti- capitalists emerge as virtuous ascetics happy to divest themselves of the garb of capitalist logic.
Klein's choice of the logo as a key to unlock the secret working of the social system, makes political conclusions such as these un-avoidable. However the personable story of No Logo sets up preliminary lines of defence against these accusations. Klein too was once inebriated with cocktails of corporate signifiers before she saw the light. No Logo bears all ' the sewing of labels on to jeans, the yearning for fast food ' with a spirit of confession that would make a catholic blush. Now saved from perdition, Klein's story re-enters the sinful world of her youth with a rigorous attention to banal detail that outflanks Easton Ellis's American Psycho and has Douglas Coupland checking his notes.
As an artistic whole No Logo is endangered by the banality of its subject matter. Everywhere the language of the mass marketing machines are taken at face value, and the bizarre justifications of commodities within market society are read as if they expressed its inner workings. The nauseating saturation of sign values and the televised spectacle of commercial society are reproduced here in full. No sooner are we treated to prosaic quotes from the likes of the chairman of United Biscuits than we are raised up by the plight of workers sweating for a dime. Set against the tyranny of the logo, grass roots protests are reposed as rising up against its logic. No one else has sifted through the garbage can of the self serving rhetoric of the make-believe corporate world with more zeal than Ms Klein. But no one else has performed such a disservice to those who oppose the power of the corporation by constantly depreciating their political activity to serve as counterpoint to a journalistic device.
No Logo was potentially a powerful intervention. But the play between the rhetoric of the multi-national corporation and its inhuman reality is never really convincing. In places No Logo chastises an earlier political generation for maligning reality in the face of the image, yet the major import of Klein's argument is to do exactly the same. Apparently obsessed with the writing on the wall, 80's activism did not notice that the 'wall had been sold'. However Klein's own empirical bricks and mortar have no foundations except the juxtaposition between a commercial muppet show and extreme labour practices in the third world. In this admixture of indignation, intrigue and outrage Klein fails to posit exactly how such pernicious extremes have developed and the basis wherein companies themselves present their own activity not as creating products but as the creation of an experience through a brand.
Although No Logo tries to balance its attack on the commercial world with the reality of production. What tends to be missing is any connection between the ideologies of consumer society and the social needs that are generated by the cultural reproduction of the worker. We are continuously offered sound bite rebukes to corporate ideology, yet the generality of conditions that have given rise to these ideational social forms are never explored. A case in point is a section that deals with the encroachment of private interests into education. Though usefully detailing how in the U.S. soft drink brands and computer manufacturers have exchanged money for publicity with public bodies, Klein saturates the text with her own outrage that such events receive little remark. Yet not once does she attempt to explain exactly why such processes should be condemned. Rather she assumes that it will be self evident to her readership why we ought to preserve genuine public life. For what reason? The resistance against 'brand-extension' into education turns out to be entirely symbolic; 'these quasi-sacred spaces remind us that unbranded space is possible'.
Brands are not the power, yet Klein colludes with the market rhetoric to the extent that she presents them as such. Most capital is anonymous and apart from high-street stores, much corporate marketing is not directed at consumers at all, but at other capitalists. This goes on in a world where corporate power and its legitimacy as the very motor behind social interchange has already been established and entrenched. Brands do not colonise space, the social power of capital has already made this space its own. Rather the brand fills out already colonised spaces, and herein certain companies in competition for the same market use resources to produce a social meaning to attach to their wares. In a Marcusian vein Klein is sensitive to the fact that this process involves the incorporation of any manner of existent cultural discourses and their reproduction as the exclusive property of a particular commodity. Hence the impression that capital speaks for and can satisfy our social desires, therefore too, the explosion of a market for people skilled in fabrication and mystification. Most of this stinks, but it could never be the basis for a politics. Capital itself is not tied to any particular identity; if one particular manifestation is discredited it will simply move to a different domain, this is given by its character as a social power. The celebration of symbolic campaigns against individual capitalists shows that Klein has bought the fetishism of the commodity wholesale. As the grandfather of the critique of capital scribbled in his notebooks so many years ago, the 'worker cares as much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldn't give a damn for the junk.'
Still we inhabit a world where the colonisation of capital seems complete. It is a fair project that perceives here that the total subsumption of the social by capital implies a reconfiguration of the sites of political resistance. However, truths remain at the level of production that are not subverted by this logic. This is the truth of the necessity of work and the predominance of time spent at work. The cultural effects of market society lie in our incapacity to be creative outside of work. Entertainment has become a specialised industry and from computer games to motion pictures our cultural reproduction lies in received entertainment, lacking the time and skills as individuals we are constrained to consume what others produce. The enormity of time that people are forced to spend under the social power of a master de-limits their capacity for developmental creative activity outside of it.
Moreover with the specification and diversification of types of work demanded by capital, the responsibility for developing the capacity to work is transferred away from the capitalist. Out of need we are forced to occupy the culture of our work, to enhance our productivity and we often feel obliged to into making our 'free' social activity orientate around work. On the level of politics No Logo degenerates from a potentially powerful critique of the spectacle, the actualised phenomenology of the market into a rehashed appeal for a mode of liberalism. Economically speaking this is the voice of the owner of a boutique crying business as usual in the aftermath of the blitz.
Implicit here is resentment against mass production wherefore the socio-political struggle of the middle class to restate a sphere of production, consumption outside the realm of capital; against mass production; against homogenisation in the name of quality whether ethical or material. Behind the general victim mentality of Klein's vision lies disdain for the masses, those hoodwinked into identifying quality with what is predominant, most immediate and socially manufactured as cool. No Logo is fuel for the burgeoning fires of cultural separation along class lines and of disdain for the ethically irresponsible and marginalized who seemingly sustain a market for secular idols.
What emerges as the political imperative in No Logo is not to subvert the power behind the saturation of corporate ideology into our social space, but to campaign that it is not rubbed in our face. Here for all its symbolic power the masses struggle against the corporation is reinvented as a demand upon the corporation to be ethically accountable. Forgotten here are precisely the premises of the brand and logo ' that companies are already ethical. Realising commodities on the market now implies that the commodities satisfy social needs for inclusion, standards and quality that are generated out of the subsumption of the political and the public by private power. In Noreena Hertz's recent book, the Silent TakeOver, these same process are understood in a positive light, and it demonstrates the extent to which Klein's premises by no means necessarily serve a radical agenda.
With a similar emphasis of corporate abuse of power and the excessive gravity of the inequality it engenders, Hertz endeavours to utilise the same type of personable journalism of her Canadian counterpart. Indeed if Klein's brief was to marginalize activism to a liberal agenda, Hertz's remit was clearly something like; 'write a Klein-esque' book; young, punchy, but try to change the ending ' if in doing so you can make out anti-capitalism to be good for capitalists, you can write your own cheque.' Indeed if Klein's demand was to build an ethical universe in response to branded corporations, Hertz with characteristic naivety confesses her belief that capital is often best placed to offer social justice. Similarly the encroachment upon the public is seen as a process that could be reversed. Essentially The Silent Takeover tries to explain that the cooption of the public by capitalists has led to un-democratic resistances to capitalism. Hertz wants to reinvent an anti-capitalist rationale for the state that can gain political legitimacy by kowtowing to consumerist demands that provide moral and ethical justification for political regulation. This is not just about making capitalism accountable, it is more explicitly a means of making capital more profitable. Whom Hertz sees as her audience becomes very clear when she recommends to business that a set of ethical principles would enhance their credibility and sales potential.
The working refrain of The Silent Takeover is the crisis of representation and the lack of faith citizens have in the democratic process. Hence 'shop don't vote' has become the hallmark of societies infected by the paradox of political statements being made through the boycotting of politics. But the main problem with this book is its working motif, its basic thesis that somehow the 'takeover' went un-noticed. Rather the current state of politics, especially in Britain, is exactly characterised by the re-management of the balance of government and business in the face of the displacement of the traditional left. The defeat of labour was not silent, but silenced.' Indeed we are still reeling from the gradual destruction of opposition to privatisation of public services. The battles fought out by a dying labour movement are not represented in this book, and the symbolic activisms that have taken their place are not at all understood in the context of defeat. That her own political agenda of consumer activism is the result of such a process rather than the basis for a new one is not even considered by Hertz and we are left wondering what is on the cards for the future, when the author of such a palpably ignorant' and obsequious opportunist intervention is described as a leading new thinker of our generation.
Graduates from Hertz and Klein's shopping mall St Trinian's would do well to upgrade their diploma at where post-structuralism and Italian Marxism meet.
Empire, written over a period of ten years is immediately relevant to the world that Klein and Hertz have construed. What are so far tentative conclusions; the complete subordination of the social to the force of capital and the corresponding depreciation of the nation state as sovereign power, are found in Empire as necessary foundations of the emergence of a new socio-political universe. In Empire globalisation is not understood as a process exterior to its subjects. Rather in so far as globalisation represents a reorganisation of centres of power it is understood as the basis for a more progressive mode of social organisation. The differences lie in the depth of the analysis. Whereas Klein skates upon the surface of brand identity, Negri's materialism leads him to present his analysis through the dimensions of the object of study itself. What makes Negri's attempt to restate a historically sensitive realism so fascinating is that this procedure is performed without recourse to a dialectic of negativity. Rather the boundaries of the totality are posited as imminently present within its ontological constitution. If Klein mirrored her subject matter haphazardly by only dipping into its pre-conditions, Hardt and Negri have successfully provided an ontological view of the new world order that reproduces the hierarchy of its constitution. For us, the clarity of exposition means Negri and Hardt are far more open to criticism and development of their position' - as even if it does not lead to agreement - it is hallmarked by consistency and commitment .
From positing the reconstitution of the political on the level of the trans-national, Empire moves on to delineate how traditional conventions of contractarian political philosophy must give way to the perception that the political is thus constituted, not in spite of, yet as a direct result of the activities - the productive creative desiring energy of ' the multitude. The latter works as the load- bearing category in Empire demonstrating the debt owed to a Spinozist and Deluezian style of thought. Constitutive power at the level of the multitude disturbs a Machiavellian concept of sovereignty; the ontological weight of the multitudes desires placing the whole edifice of globalised polity in a responsive rather than proactive position. Such a plane of juridical and political right lacks a centre but remains an ordered hierarchy. No longer the centred imperialism of yesteryear the constitution of the global order works in a through a recognised criterion of human right, itself a juridical category that even if harnessed for pernicious ends, has its origins in non-governmental discourses that have sought to defend the very language of human life itself in a world where that is continuously subverted.
Despite the in-determinacy of the category of the multitude - the proletarianised many ' this aged political referent serves as both the conceptual and real counterpart to Empire. The power of the de-centred majority ultimately lies in its productive power. As a diverse mediated reality Negri takes strongly from Marx and modern cultural Marxists like Frederic Jameson the principle that difference is only possible through some form of identity. Staying close to this tradition, the contemporary requirements that capital demands of labour lie in intensification of the value form of labour through further simultaneous homogenisation and differentiation of the concrete activity of work. Within Hardt and Negri's post-modern economy this logic assumes a new turn of fate.' Crucial here is the use of the Marxian notion of the general intellect as is the changing reality of working practices. With computerisation of production, the worker is further removed from the object of his labour, it becomes in affect more abstract. Yet the methods of production thus become homogenised in that a single tool, the computer becomes the standard technical instrument of production. Correspondingly the service sector and the socio-biological and cultural networks of social production lose their distinctive separation from the field of work. Such 'affective labour' inaugurates the complete immersion of productive logic into areas traditionally understood as areas of consumption and dissemination of the surplus. Fundamental to this process is that 'cooperation is completely immanent to the labouring activity itself'. Much like Marx saw the imposition of the factory system as pushing workers towards a form of identity, Hardt and Negri see post-modern production as forcing society to the stage where immaterial labour creates the 'potential for a spontaneous and elementary communism.' Yet not only does labour under postmodernism become closer in form to its systemic social character, the complete subsumption of labour by capital subverts the time of value production to the extent that even when outside of the regime of work, value is still produced. This is the world of the bio-political.
It is difficult to judge the truthfulness of this new regime of labour. It is tempting to fall back on Klein and the image of the dark satanic mills to sustain a notion that fundamental to capital is the imposition of a form of social control and raw exploitation. For sure this will long remain a reality of global capitalism. But if we formulate our critique of capital at its extremes we run the risk of failing in our critique of the type of everyday life that capital engenders within its heartlands. But by undermining the classical notion of 'variable capital' Negri runs the risk of over-playing the positive aspect of capital's dynamic property of revolutionising the social basis of production.
Indeed in the Grundrisse (a text with which Negri is abundantly familiar) Marx mocks the sycophants of the bourgeoisie who perceive that it is productive labour when 'somebody picks the lice out of his (the capitalist's) hair, or strokes his tail,'. Yet it does seem that the massive augmentation of immaterial labour, complicates a rigorous separation of when activity is productive and when not. Certainly when social forms such as the general intellect becomes the productive base of highly technologised societies we might be witnessing something like the return of child labour in the west. Young brains hacking code on micro-computers in their basements contribute indirectly to the enhancement of the technical side of production. Indeed it does reflect the extent of optimism behind the postmodernism found in Empire's which sees that the interconnectivity of contemporary societies collapse conventional boundaries of the measurable expounded with metaphysical surety by modernists like Marx . Truly here, argues Negri we can see the basis of communism, wherein our productive activity is no longer self-serving, but is inextricably bound up with the productive force of the whole of our society. To carry signifiers; to consume; to think; simply to be, all assume a productive quality. It is easy to see how socialist feminist claims concerning the productivity of domestic labour find a place within this picture.
To these sanguine and heterodox claims Marxists are well placed to offer a dash of that sobering dialectic of negativity. Indeed uncharacteristically for Negri the insistence on perceiving capital as a imposing social power is somewhat lost in this call upon the left to view the current situation positively. In Empire
living labour is prioritised to the extent that the realm of objectified dead labour is ontologically weakened. Unfortunately none of these three books offer much evidence to suggest that the power of private appropriation has waned. Indeed all the evidence points to the contrary. The fact that capitalists are in a position to steer, dominate and control what passes for social life shows the entrenchment of its social power and the absolute poverty of the conventional apparatus of representative democracies to do anything but negotiate a veneer of resistance against such alien ' alienated - power. That the future does not colour our view of the present, we must insist that we continue to recognise that all work remains a process of alienation, and the immeasurability of value does not stem the heinous crime of exploitation.
That young people are captured by the spectacular images of societies that know themselves through consumption demonstrates their powerlessness against the dominant logic. Yet Negri shows how this positing of capital as a transcendent power with all its pseudo-religious symbols can be subverted with a politics based upon an immanent ontology. A politics based on high-street consumption could never effectively challenge capitalism, so long as the presupposition of market society remains an economic and social alienation that is the mainstay of the social production of commodities.
Self-elected or media sponsored representatives will continue to present the reclamation of public space as the goal of anti-capitalist politics. Rather for us, the issue is the reclamation of our alienated social power. To this end the politics of bio-power, the bottom up realisation of the potential of people to reap the fruits of their own activity effectively challenges both the social power of capital as well as the ethical discourse that seeks to limit our desires. Crucially Empire locates the potential for politics not in the world of banal manufactured identities and the defacement of the spectacle but in the realm of our massive creative productive energies. Anti-capitalism need not degenerate into pathetic demands for a face-lift to a system that is itself always pointing to a future beyond it. The invective found in Empire that potential for change lies in the here and now is in places being taken seriously by elements within the anti-capitalist movement. It is a strong foundation block for a maturing movement. Empire ends by opposing the misery of power with 'the irrepressible lightness and joy of being a communist.' Rebellion is cast as a project of love. Herein lies a real potential to redefine a meaningful distinction between us and them. Yet a of reading Klein and Hertz shows that the lines are not yet in the least fully drawn. This project is one to be realised, until then we had better keep the champagne on ice.