Popular (Neo-)Modernism on Blue Labyrinths

Matt Bluemink from bluelabyrinths.com asked me if I want to write something for his online magazine. You can find the result here.

I tried to summarize and delineate some of my core ideas on changes in culture.

Many thanks to Matt for writing me and publishing it.

The Anti-Hauntology Debate Continues

I want to draw your attention to three excellent posts as the anti-hauntology debate continues:

Matt ‘xenogothic’ Colquhoun has responded to Mark Bluemink’s article as well.

Bluemink replied with another post.

And xenogothic responded again.

I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

Accelerationism

First of all: to those unfamiliar with accelerationism or those who have only heard the term in the context of Trump or the alt-right. In these contexts accelerationism refers to the position that we should speed things up to accelerate the destructive tendencies in society. The goal is to completely destroy the system, enabling us to create a different one. (I’m still not sure if this use of the word – mostly present in American debates – has anything to do with the debate I’m now sketching. Maybe it is a result of one of the many misunderstandings. But maybe it is just due to the view that the world is falling apart and a new world can only be built if all is broken down. It is obvious that people with this mindset want to accelerate the demise and it is therefore called accelerationism – whithout any reference to the – mostly British – debate.)

This is not the context to which xenogothic refers. As xenogothic is never tired to explain, accelerationism was originally a term in an online debate. Before I explain a little bit more it is helpful to make timeline:

  • 00s/early 10s: online debate
  • early 10s: first articles using the term are being published
  • 2013: #Accelerate Manifesto goes online
  • 2014: Urbanomic publishes the #Accelerate reader
  • later: many tendencies in the debates get clearer and lead to currents (e.g. l/acc for left accelerationism, r/acc for right accelerationism, u/acc for unconditional accelerationism and so on)

The online debate – as xenogothic explains – was first centered about rethinking aesthetics – having in mind political and philosophical ideas. It started with Hauntology – a term Bluemink explains in the first post. Hauntology was coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds and cultural critic Mark ‘k-punk’ Fisher (I’m not sure who was first, but I don’t think it matters). They used it to describe certain tendencies in contemporary culture. This was obviously linked by Mark Fisher to his idea of Capitalist Realism (the notion that we are unable to transcend current conditions and – the right as well as the left – stuck within capitalism). To break out of Capitalism something different was needed. Alex ‘splintering bone ashes’ Williams suggested different ways to look at contemporary music. It was then that Benjamin Noys used the term accelerationism to describe the strategies explained by Williams.

Noys summarized his doubts in a small book called Malign Velocities. It is worth paying attention to the preface and how he describes his own relation to accelerationism:

My aim is not to offer an exhaustive account of accelerationism, but rather to choose certain moments at which it emerges as a political and cultural strategy. […] As this is a work written out of the sense of the difficulty of defeating accelerationism, I don’t hope to write its epitaph here. I can’t deny the appeal of accelerationism, particularly as an aesthetic. What I want to do is suggest some reasons for the attraction that accelerationism exerts, particularly as it appears as such a counter-intuitive and defeatist strategy. […]

While accelerationism wants to accelerate beyond labor, in doing so it pays attention to the misery and joys of labor as an experience. If we are forced to labor, or consigned to the other hell of unemployment, then accelerationism tries to welcome and immerse us in this inhuman experience. While this fails as a political strategy it tells us much about the impossible experience of labor under capitalism. We are often told labor, or at least ‘traditional labor’, is over; the very excesses of accelerationism indicate that labor is still a problem that we have not solved. That I think the accelerationist solution of speeding through labor is false will become evident. This does not, however, remove the problem itself.

p. XIf

In this words you can see that Noys is sceptical towards many of the solutions offered in the accelerationism debate. But he acknowledges the questions of the debate and thinks that these are real problems to be solved. These questions continued and continue up to today. There are some proposals for strategies, but the question: How to overcome capitalism if it can reabsorb every resistance? still remains.

One more concrete political proposal was offered by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek. They wrote the #Aceelerate Manifesto – to many the core conception of l/acc. Because not everybody involved in the debate was very happy with it, they proposed different ideas and gave it different names.

One prominent example is Nick Land. To understand Land and the role he played it is important to forget all the connections that many people are well aware of right now (e.g. his connection to alt-right blogger Curtis ‘Mencius Moldbug’ Yarwin). Land’s philosophy consists in radically rethinking capitalism. Thereby creating an uncanny view on the human and its role within technocapitalism. The reason so many were fascinated by his ideas was not only the radicalness, but the shift of view his ideas enabled (a very good example is Fisher’s contribution to the #Accelarate reader; you can listen to the talk here. His contribution to this reader is also a very good reference for Fisher’s take on Land.). In an interview on the absolutely amazing Interdependence podcast xenogothic made a great analogy: Land can be considered as the Punk of the debate – nihilistic attitude, destroying everything people believe in. Whereby Fisher and others can be compared to Post-Punk – asking the question what to do when we forget old straitjackets and searching for new directions.

So much on Accelerationism. (You can reconstructed the original debate via these two good summaries of the relevant posts. You need the wayback machine to access some posts, some have moved their location, but are accessible via your searchengine, others are – at least to me – completely lost. I can also highly recommend reading through the xenogothic blog, because Matt uncovers a lot of the lost debates and contextualizes it).

Popular Modernism

Reading xenogothic’s responses to Bluemink, one can ask the question why to argue about the different names. We now have three suggestions: Anti-Hauntology, Popular Modernism and Accelerationism. But there’s more to it than names. As xenogothic explained: William’s ‘Against Hauntology’ post was the one Noys called accelerationist. But what about accelerationism and popular modernism? One reason we found different names is the context we thought about. Xenogothic had obviously the explained debate in mind. Therefore it makes a lot of sense. I thought a little bit more out of the context of Fisher’s work. In the accelerationist debate – in which Fisher played a huge role – he never explicitly stated to be an accelerationist or pro accelerationism. Whereby he explicitly talked of popular modernism as a bygone era as well as an unfinished project. This explains why both names can be considered fitting – depending on the context you are looking at.

But I want to suggest another view now. As Noys states, accelerationism is about aesthetics and about strategies. I would argue that popular modernism on the other side shouldn’t be considered as a strategy or aesthetics, but as a goal. Popular modernism – as far as I understand Fisher’s use of the term – describes a cultural media landscape that distributes different forms of culture (experimental and non-experimental) that are distributed and embedded in a society that makes it accessible to many people. It is about enabling people to look into different cultures and perspectives – forcing us to broaden and rethink our perspectives. Not only some intellectuals (like me), but also the working class. Of course the working class has, is and never will be anti-intellectual or anti-experimental per se. But as I explained in one of my previous posts working conditions and the manner in which culture is embedded in contemporary society prevent many people from accessing the incredible artists we talk about. The fact that the artists we use as examples are often female, trans, queer and/or black is not unimportant. For me it fits into the idea of popular modernism. These artists have to struggle in our society. They have a different perspective (than my white male perspective). They enable people like me to look at gender and culture from a completely different perspective. Thereby they fulfill at least the point of popular modernism to broaden and rethink perspectives. As I wrote before, that is still not enough. We need a different infrastructure for media (and thereby culture) and how it is embedded in society. We all (and not only artists) need to work towards a different culture and society. One in which popular modernism is not an unfinished project anymore, but an evershifting landscape of new ideas and perspectives that reaches not only the few who are interested in fancy art, but everybody.

Therefore I suggest to call popular modernism the goal and accelerationism the debate that tries to identify how we can reach it. As I wanted to make clear above accelerationism is in the first place a debate about strategies that recognize the contemporary mechanisms of capitalism. It is not a debate we should look at as checked off. The questions and problems remain. There are a few proposals that can be considered as useful strategies for another world (in my opinion: reducing working hours/days and demanding a Basic Income as e.g. Guy Standing promotes, or maybe even go further and demand the universal BI like Srnicek and Williams). But this is not enough and we have to ask and answer a lot of questions that were part of the debate. To reach popular modernism we need a strategy (call it accelerationist or not).

Culture and Philosophy

Last but not least I want to hint at a few connections between my philosophy stuff and my ideas about culture, politics and music. One of the most fascinating questions for me is how novelty is possible. Many of the philosophers I write about on this blog feature this idea that there is becoming and for becoming to be possible, the new has to be possible. Bluemink and Colquhoun feature this in their articles as well (e.g. Bluemink writing about DeLanda – of whom I’ve written before and xenogothic writing about exactly the problem I’m trying to describe in this section). This can be linked to the current condition that is so often described as postmodernism. Postmodernism can be defined as the cultural perspective that nothing new is possible, the only possibility to create today is rearrange the parts in way it wasn’t done before. This is the view of a closed world (like btw some deterministic positions hold as well). Thinkers like Deleuze, DeLanda, Badiou and Meillassoux see novelty and ask the question of its conditions. Meillassoux for example writes about creation ex nihilo (from nothing). He defines it a little bit more precise as an effect that comprises more than the cause. For example: if you look at the universe before the emergence of life, you can’t deduce that Biden wins. The determinist position holds that this is possible (often called Laplace’s demon: If you have all the knowledge of the rules and all the information about one point in time, you can deduce all others). But for Meillassoux this is impossible. There are events in which there is more in the effect than in the cause. I’m soon going to write more about these terms: novelty, virtuality, tendencies, capacities, etc. Another question in this context is the transference: Which ideas (and from which subjects) can be taken out of their original context and put in a new one? This involves thinking about how these ideas are transformed (or not) and how the context they are put into transforms (or not). This forms something that can be called experimental philosophy: Putting ideas in other contexts to see what you discover or understand, which new questions arise. One still has to be very careful, because not every idea is applicable to another context. But in many cases you can’t tell before doing it. Therefore I see it in many perspectives as a worthwhile project to bring ideas from philosophy in the context of music, politics and culture. The blogosphere is the ideal place to do this. Sometimes we have to turn back and admit it was a stupid idea (but now we know) and sometimes our perspective is shifting – like the ever shifting perspective of popular modernism.

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Further Notes on Popular Modernism

My lat two posts are concerned with Mark ‘k-punk’ Fisher’s idea of Popular Modernism. In it I was mostly concerned about the content of past and current music. But Popular Modernism is a concept that is far broader than certain styles and contents. One important aspect is the distribution of culture. In many works Fisher refers to early British broadcasting. British broadcasting was able – even with only a few channels – to deliver very different aspects of culture. He often remembered the Tarkowskij nights at the BBC. Tarkowskij – an experimental soviet filmmaker – made movies so strange the contemporary BBC would directly refuse to broadcast. He thought a lot about possibilities to reach a broader public with experimental art.

If we look at the distribution of music, films and series, we can see how many people use the same platforms (Spotify, Netflix, PrimeVideo, Disney+, etc). Not all – but most of the stuff is very similar and not very experimental. The algorithms recommend you only stuff like the stuff you are already into. Thereby preventing you from broadening your experience and knowledge. How most of this is implemented in our society is crucial too. Many people watch Netflix to shut down, to don’t think anymore, to relax. This is certainly tied to work that is more and more psychically exhausting than physically exhausting (and people with physically exhausting work have too often 8 hours or more to work and can’t get their brain to work when they come home). A similar case can be made about music. Fisher’s remarks about the iPod (or OedIpod how he sometimes calls it) are still relevant. Music today is often experienced in solitude, it shuts us off in the train to work or when we go shopping. Everyday music experience is rarely a pleasure in the music itself, but a protective shield against other people. This amplifies the condition of music as a lonely and not a collective experience. As Fisher writes:

Pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts upon public space, but as a retreat into private OedIpod consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.

To summarize: Our current condition prevents a real broadening of cultural experience in content as well as in collectivity.

As great as emerging artists like Desire Marea or SOPHIE are – we need also an infrastructure to promote them, to make them accessible. We also need a change of the regime of thought, because the conditions of many people don’t allow them to explore this (because they have no time or are in states of mind that block it off). To have a real return of popular modernism we not only need different content, but also different conditions for media and its reception too.

The Politics of Sadness

Mark “k-punk” Fisher thought about boredom as a drive to be creative in the era of punk and post-punk. In the fantastic k-punk reader there is a piece called no one is bored, everything is boring. Here Fisher explains how this boredom vanished via contemporary media- and cyberculture. In this post I want to summarize shortly these ideas and point to another direction. I realized that in 21st century post-punk/goth culture there is recurring theme of sadness that is politicized. I want to track some traces of sadness in pop culture and think about the possibility of political sadness.

The Politics of Boredom

Not only Mark Fisher realized that boredom was an important part of 70s subculture. The music journalist Simon Reynolds mentions it in his book Rip it Up and Start Again in the context of the Buzzcock’s album Spiral Scratch. This album features the track Boredom. Reynolds writes:

Spiral Scratch was playful,” says Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon. “Play was very important.” That spirit came through in the EP’s most famous song, “Boredom,” which was simultaneously an expression of real ennui (“I’m living in this movie/but it doesn’t move me”) and a metapop comment on boredom as a prescribed subject for punk songs and punk-related media discourse—a topic that was predictable to the point of being, well, a bit boring. Pete Shelley’s deliberately inane two-note guitar solo sealed the conceptual deal: a “boring” solo that was actually thrillingly tension inducing in its fixated refusal to go anywhere melodically.

But what is this boredom as a drive? K-punk traces boredom to fordist conditions. Fordism is the period of industrial exploitation and working at assembly lines: menial and boring work. The supposed stability of social democracy helped to generate a picture of stagnation. According to Fisher Punk and Post-Punk used and politicized this boredom to long for and search for another world and other conditions.

But boredom has come to its end. We now live with our smartphones in our pockets. When the slightest sense of boredom comes up we immideatly grasp our phones to check mails, play a stupid game or check our favorite social network. We are no longer bored by television, because we have enough possibilities (more than enough channels, alternative plattforms like Netflix, PrimeVideo and Disney Plus).

Boring

That is not to say that stuff isn’t boring. As the title of above mentioned essay says: everything is boring. The contemporary cultural products are rarely good.

Sadness in the 70s

But (post-)punk didn’t only use boredom. Central themes of bands like Joy Division and the Cure are to look at love not in a romanticized way, but as something cruel and dangerous. The result is often devastation and depression. But not only love, all commitments a so called normal person has, are questioned. This generates the strong negativity of these bands. The only commitment seems to be a kind of negativity and sadness.

This is not exclusive to post-punk. 70S and 80s pop-culture is full of it. The New Romantics Ultravox sing about “Dancing with tears in my eyes”. Even before, but still present in the 70s/80s there is strong sense of sadness in blues and RnB – think about Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” where she doesn’t want to get cured and stay in the melancholy feeling. What makes Joy Division and the Cure so special is the radical attitude with which they promote it.

As a theme sadness is always there. It is primary emotion of human beings. It is always a part of our culture. But is there a sense in which it could be understood politically? I think there is.

The Political Potential of Sadness

In many ways sadness is considered a negative feeling that has to be eliminated. But there are at least two approaches that make sadness an important and interesting concept for politics. The first is concerned with what Zizek unfortunately calls ‘maternal’ imperative and the second is about the notion Weltschmerz.

The ‘maternal’ imperative is the imperative to enjoy, to embrace live, to live happy. The reason it is called maternal is structural. The structure of a family can be dissected in three parts. The children can be understood as recipients of imperatives. The father fills the role of the disciplining commander: Don’t do this! Don’t do that! And the mother fills the role of the live embracing supporter. Therefore the ‘paternal’ imperative is the imperative of duty and the ‘maternal’ imperative is the imperative to enjoy. The gendered connotation is contingent (meaning neither arbitrary nor necessary; under different historical conditions it could be different).

Foucault and Deleuze thought about changes that can be tied to modes of production. You can assume a shift from a mode of production called Fordims to a mode of production called postfordism. This shift also brings a with it a shift in the modes of controlling the workforce. In the industrial age of capitalism (and at least partly in fordism) there is a strong sense of paternal and disciplinary control of the work force. You’ve got your overseers that look that you do your work. This mode is centered around discipline and duty.

In Postfordism this shifts to – what Deleuze and Foucault call – a control society. The control society doesn’t need controllers and overseers. Instead it builds on a regime that puts workers into the mode of selfcontrol. No one is forcing workers literally into doing this or that. The fear of losing your job is one of many mechanisms that deters you from not doing your job right. Of course in the past losing your job was real danger too (even a more existential one than today, because today you can get at least a little bit of food without a job). Once I talked to a very old worker who told me that back in the days many workers sabotaged their work to get longer breaks and was afflicted that in his last working years that it was impossible to do so and – if it happened – there was no solidarity and the coworkers wanted to go back to work. But the mechanisms of the control society go far beyond actual work. Our leisure regime is often controlled by work: you make sport to keep fit, you make yoga to keep relaxed and far too often these things are connected to you being fit for work. Cyberpunk often has these images of megaplex structures owned by a single company. In it is everything you need to live: supermarkets, sport centers, relaxation zones, cinemas and concert halls for culture, your accommodation and – of course – your workplace. This SciFi concept is not part of some fiction anymore. If you look at some google facilities and structures by other companies this is becoming more and more real. A controlled environment with everything you need to “live” (living in this context meaning: being a happy worker).

This shift contains another feature. While fordism was still in many areas about industrial labor, postfordism saw a rise in the service sector and – what some call – cognitarian labor (precary work that doesn’t involve physical work, but ruins your psyche: from call centers to poor paid jobs at the university). Many of these jobs need social skills – or better: the confrontation with a customer. These social interactions in the context of wage labor need happy workers. You have to smile and be nice. Nobody wants a bad-tempered waiter. Here we can see the maternal imperative getting connected to postfordist conditions (or the control society). This and a lot of other factors advanced a view of “healthy” people as being happy. Sadness in this perspective is a sign of sickness.

This can be also tied to the problem of sexism. Too often I experienced people (men and women alike) telling girls or women they should smile more. Sometimes explicitly with the statement that if they don’t smile they will never find a husband.

Under these conditions sadness has a political potential to threaten a society that view sadness as sickness. It is a possibility to express a refusal of this society. Especially in the extreme forms of Joy Division, The Cure and later the Emo subculture, this radical negativity and sadness can be understood as rejection of society’s view on emotions and thereby society’s view on ‘healthy’ people.

This leads to the other political potential of sadness: Weltschmerz – the longing for another world. To express one’s disapproval with this society is to evoke a sense for a different society: structured by other principles and other ways of living.

In my opinion Weltschmerz is important for change, but there is a danger of getting stuck in longing without being able to express directions or ways to change this world. Nonetheless it has potential for political expression in culture.

Politics of Sadness in Action?

One question for me is if there are certain periods and circumstances in which sadness thrives as a political counternarrative. Another one concerns especially post-punk: If boredom in the 70s was one of the main motors of creativity and – as Fisher argued – boredom as an experience (and not a content) vanished, is sadness the new motor of post-punk/goth creativity? And is this a good thing? One could argue that a lot of current post-punk/goth sounds like the 70s and 80s. This could lead to the conjecture that post-punk/goth has lost its creativity. Can this be tied to a Weltschmerz unable to transcend current conditions?

To give at least one example of contemporary politicization of sadness: the Lebanon Hanover track “Sadness is Rebellion”. As the title already tells us it is about sadness as non-conformity. Thereby it can be linked directly to the political notion of sadness I tried to describe in context of Zizek and Postfordism.

As much as I like this track, it can be criticized in at least two ways: First, it is not really new or especially depressing. Its sound can feel like a weaker version of the sound of the Cure or Joy Division. Secondly, it doesn’t get out of the reactive notion of Weltschmerz. I understand reactive in this context as reacting to a certain condition without being able to actively create something different. Both points can be linked together: no creativity without vision.

Self reflectively the lyrics explicitly tackle these problems:

YOU SAY NOSTALGIA IS NEGATION
IT CAN’T GO ON LIKE THAT
IT WILL ALL END

THERE IS WAVES OF RESISTANCE
SOMEWHERE OUT THERE BUT THERE’S NOT ENOUGH OF THEM

At the end of the song this self reflective perspective leads again to a longing and search for other forms of resistance:

THERE IS WAVES OF RESISTANCE
I CAN FEEL THEM BUT I NEVER HEAR OF THEM
THERE IS WAVES OF RESISTANCE
THE CRITICAL MINDS THERE IS NOT ENOUGH OF THEM

So is there a different way to use sadness politically that Lebanon Hanover are looking for without being trapped in old styles and reactivity? I think there are approaches. The final lines of the song express a form of loneliness and solitude so often experienced in our society. Again one can turn to Mark Fisher who asked the question how to escape the isolated individuality and find new forms of collectivity. There are also artistic ways that try to overcome current conditions by using the feeling of sadness. Because it is very difficult to pinpoint the ways they are doing it, I only hint at it with three examples: Desire Marea, Iceboy Violet and SOPHIE. All of them are experimental in their work. All of them have a strong sense of Weltschmerz – a dissatisfaction with current conditions. This Weltschmerz as it is linked to experimental tunes and very intelligent lyrics questions and thereby is able to transform our desires. Desire Marea’s debut album is so poignant because they capture the estranged role of desire in contemporary culture and are able to question it in a way that lets a different form of desire shine through. In a different way Iceboy Violet in their set for the fantastic Postcapitalist Desire event last weekend used the concept of desire as a way to hint at ways out of our current condition. SOPHIE – an incredible artist that tragically died last week – has similar to Desire Marea a fantastic debut album. In a review by the Guardian you can find the following lines:

Despite software advances, so many electronic producers are content to lapse into nostalgia or a safe, compromised emotional range; Sophie has crafted a genuinely original sound and uses it to visit extremes of terror, sadness and pleasure.

I think these lines are absolutely fitting. SOPHIE and Desire Marea are able to use sound and experiment with it as emotional trigger, exploring new forms of feelings and contextualizing feelings, slowly shifting the view of listeners to new and underexplored directions. SOPHIE and Desire Marea have these explicit expressions of sadness. A sadness that isn’t encapsulated in its own world, a sadness that transgresses many borders – thereby outlining the many connections and mechanisms that create this sadness.

All examples express a deep emotional sadness but in a way that uses it as a creative, transcending notion of Weltschmerz. So again: can this concept that I tried to sketch here really be transformed in a good analysis of the conditions of creativity in popular culture? Is there really a way to politicize emotions in that way? Or are other criteria and perspectives more appropriate? Can this notion of sadness be connected to other processes (like modes of work, media, etc.)? What framework could be developed to understand this?

Conclusion

To be clear again: This is not a full developed theory I’m proposing. These are some thought in the context of popular culture and its relation to politics. I just want to make a proposition that may can be developed further or rejected in the future. Hopefully it reaches some people who think it further and join in a discussion. I think it is important to link emotions, desire, pop culture and politics together. All of these structure our lives and without reflecting them, we are unable to change them and find new ways.

About the different phases of Capitalism

I often use words like Fordism, Post-Fordism or Platform Capitalism. These terms belong to certain understandings of Capitalism. As the question arose again in a chat last week, I used the opportunity to sketch the development of Capitalism and the different perspectives you can have on it. This post is an overview and therefore I only name the problems, but don’t go into a deep analysis or understanding.

From Industrialization to Fordism

Capitalism can be divided in phases. The first phase was industrialism: revolutionizing production processes via machinery, making manufacturing not that important anymore and inventing new methods for the division of labour. And that is what Marx wrote about. But in the beginning of the 20th century some things changed. Depending on the question you want to answer you can get different results. But today most of the left theories agree on a big shift in the ideas of Henry Ford. In the classic industrial age exploitation of workers in factories was terrible. But Ford managed his factories different. By means of assembly lines he standardized products and made it possible for unskilled workers to contribute to the production. He could also easier manage his factories without the extremes of exploitation and with a lot more safety at the workplace. Therefore he could state that everybody who works for Ford can buy a Ford. This led to less frustrated workers and a big change in factories worldwide. One of the results was that some workers weren’t that eager anymore to build unions or to change the status quo. Therefore the second big phase of Capitalism is called Fordism.

Photograph - H.V.McKay Massey Harris, Hay Baler Assembly Line, circa 1946
“Photograph – H.V.McKay Massey Harris, Hay Baler Assembly Line, circa 1946”

This new mode of production lead to another problem: the theory of value. On the one side this problem concerns the economic and Marxist debate about value and surplus. David Ricardo (who influenced Marx’s economic theory a lot) defined the value of a product via the work someone put into it. He was already well aware that more than workers and their physical power is needed to make a product. Additionally to money and resources (circulating capital), you need machinery, means of distribution, infrastructure, ground (the factory has to be somewhere), and so on. He called this part of the production fixed capital. There was (and is) a lot of discussion about how the flows of circulating capital and fixed capital changed after Ford and what impact it had on prices and wages.

But with serial production also the cultural value changed. In his famous essay on mechanical reproduction philosopher Walter Benjamin tried to grasp this change (Das Kunstwek im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit). How – especially artworks – lost their uniqueness (or in Benjamin’s words: aura – a word that describes not only their unique existence but also the thereby generated mode of exhibition). Photographies, serial printing and other techniques generated a distribution of artworks that was before impossible and that also changed the artwork itself. In this line of thought art itself had a crisis. Naturalism as a representation of the world was no longer a handcraft that had to be learned, but possible via technical devices. Some argue this is the reason so many abstract trends in art (e.g. Cubism) arose in the 20th century.

But production was not the only change that appeared in the first half of the 20th century. Another problem for Marxist thinkers was an emergent new line of workers that didn’t really fit into the classic model of class struggle. Frankfurt School member Siegfried Kracauer published in 1930 an astonishing book called “Die Angestellten” – literally translated “The Employed”; the current article on Wikipedia calls it “The Sallaried Masses”. The employed in question were secretaries and clerks – people (often women) who worked under miserable conditions, but didn’t fit into the narrative of the strong male worker who is not only exploited, but physically ruined. This irritation of class narratives will come back during each phase of capitalism.

(The case can be made that this also a result of the change in production. The new forms of production made manual labour less important, but the management of production more important leading to more people organizing things bureaucratically.)

Another shift in this period occurred that is not a shift in production or exploitation, but a shift in analysis. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci asked the question: Why do the exploited not rise up against their exploiters? Therefore he developed the concept of hegemony. Hegemony describes the (cultural) narratives that explain the predominance of someone (e.g. a king, aristocracy) or something (e.g. a state or an institution).

We have now four different methods to look at shifts in capitalism: change in production (assembly lines), change in value (economy, art), change in the composition of the exploited and change in the cultural narratives.

From Fordism to Postfordism

In the late 20th century something changed (often narrowed down to the 70s). The possible causes for this next phase are diverse and many theorists assume that there is no single cause but many interrelated causes.

[A short note: One of the main ideas that had an impact on this phase is Neoliberalism. Because in my opinion Neoliberalism is a concept much more complex than many presentations [and sadly often even misrepresentations] in left literature let you think, I try to leave it out of this post and write about it in another one. But that doesn’t mean that it’s important.]

We can take our sketch of the first shift as a guideline through the next one: Starting with production we can realize that the 70s and 80s were a period of massive deindustrialization (think for example of the miner-strikes in UK and the abandoned and unemployed previous industrial landscape of North England). In the same phase the service sector and automation increased. One important point and problem of this shifts in production is that the old ones didn’t simply vanish. We still have manufacturing and industrial labor. But new forms of production are added and thereby the importance of the old ones diminished. This lead to many problems. One example is the reaction of unions: Should we represent the classic industrial workers or can we make a shift towards the new exploited? Sadly most of the classic unions haven’t found a way to support the new exploited, concentrating on old concepts of the (male, physical strained) working class.

In the case of value we should start with economic value and money. The 70s marked a big shift in economy: the tying of currency to gold was abandoned (giving way to a new kind of relationship between money and value called fiat money), the previous Bretton-Woods system was abolished, the stock market started to use computers and all this together led to scientific-mathematical modeling of markets previously unimagined. Analyzing this shift is complex and still too rare in left theories – especially when it comes to understand the shift in (economic) value.

Another question concerning value arose already at the end of Fordism. In France a group of new Marxist thinkers got prominent who are sometimes simply summarized as the New Left (of France). 1947 Henri Lefebvre published his book Critique de la vie quotidienne. In this book – as well as in the works of his colleagues Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes – he made a shift in the perception of economics and culture. The three thinkers critizised traditional Marxism for its focus on production and thereby their blind spot on consumption. This new focus allowed to reevaluate production, because production wasn’t only the production of material goods. Especially Baudrillard and Barthes used semiotics – the science of signs – to understand how adverts and narratives formed products as an expression of lifestyle. Therefore value was also tied to the symbolic sphere. A tendency growing up to today.

This line of thought developed over the years with different terminologies and extensions. A prominent example is Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of consumerism:

In this short video something is added to the analysis: Ideology. Ideology – a term already present in Marx’s oeuvre – in the sense Zizek uses it describes something previously not well grasped: the perspective of desire (in the case of Starbucks: our desire to do something good). This isn’t Zizek’s new idea, something that came up in French and Italian philosophy as well. The reason that wasn’t a big perspective before (even if it can be found) is that many theoreticians haven’t read Freud’s psychoanalysis (or couldn’t because he wasn’t born or had published anything). But by now (the second half of the 20th century) it was very well known in the left. Many departed in different aspects from Freud. With the perspective of consumption and the analysis how advertising works, the way people think and conceive the world got more important. In this perspective the different phases of Capitalism didn’t only change narratives, but also the desires of people, viz what people want.

Before we look at the new constellation of the exploited and class in Postfordism, it is better to show now the connection between new questions of value and cultural narratives.

Realizing that narratives formed modes of consumptions and are applied in the new media environment, Baudrillard realized that it is more and more difficult to anchor thought in a supposed reality. A prominent example are the fins on (primarily American) cars. According to Baudrillard they don’t have any real function (e.g. making the car really faster). They only allude to speed and create the symbolic presentation of something thereby created. In this paradox world of references, models and codes were the new paradigm of thinking and creating thought. Cause and effect weren’t really distinguishable anymore. According to Baudrillard this had a tragic impact on our perception of the world and history. This new notion of history is for a lot of left thinkers the main cultural logic of postfordist Capitalism.

To contrast and explain it, it is useful to contrast the left notion of the end of history with a more conservative notion: One of the most famost expressions of the new paradigm was Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history. It wasn’t the first time the end of history was declared (you can find this notion in a lot of long gone periods). But it was a new version. Fukuyama wrote his ideas after the fall of the wall and therefore the soviet union. In his opinion the far right – he primarily means Nazi-Germany – as well as the far left – he primarily means the Soviet Union – failed. Capitalism and (representative) democracy supposedly proved to be the only viable modes of economy and politics.

That wasn’t the idea of Baudrillard and other left theories about the end of history. One of the main observations of the left was a vanishing of narratives of the future, a lost sense of history – where everything was available at the same time and history conserved for your consumption, thereby making it more like a theme park than something that had an impact on the development of the future and into a future. Up until now – thinkers like Frederic Jameson (calling this cultural mode of production and perception Postmodernism) and Mark Fisher (calling it Capitalist Realism) – forms a strong problem that the left itself has to solve. The problem can be summarized: How can we overcome Capitalism if we can’t think outside Capitalism. Or in another often quoted phrase: (In a postmodern age) It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism.

[A short note: this isn’t the only definition of Postmodernism, making it an often confusing word. This is one sense of the word not – necessarily – related to others: Postmodernism as the cultural logic (or narrative) of Postfordism.

This leads to another short note: Jameson’s famous book is called Postmodernism or the cultural logic of Late Capitalism. The late Capitalism Jameson is talking about is clearly the phase I described as Postfordism. I don’t use the word late Capitalism because it already appeared in the works of Frankfurt School – the school of thought that comprises thinkers like Benjamin, Kracauer and Adorno. These are thinkers connected to the Fordist phase of capitalism. Therefore late Capitalism is a confusing term that can be applied to each phase if it is conceived as one of the last.]

Finally the new exploited: as already hinted at on the point of production, Postfordism was characterized by deindustrialization and therefore a huge rise in all kinds of labour that isn’t physically hard, but has a huge potential to drive you psychically mad: Cashiers in supermarkets, deliverers (post, food .. it doesn’t matter; by car, by bike, truck drivers), all kind of bureau jobs (from filling forms the whole day to “translating” programs from one programming language to another to make them compatible with … whatever), and so on. But not only new jobs arose, also new modes of employment. While before you had often more job security, you now often have limited contracts, are asked to be more flexible and your job is often jobseeking.

A lot can be said about these shifts. But one thing is clear: the old (industrial and mostly male) working class is not the majority of the exploited anymore.Of course class still matters and maybe it got worse. But we need new ways to describe it. Why class still matters: Think about taking a job as a journalist. If you have a background where you don’t have to constantly look how to pay the rent and your food, you can easily make a lot of unpaid internships. If you don’t have this background, it is nearly impossible for you to become a journalist. This explains the sad fact that there are a lot of jobs where working class people aren’t really represented (not only journalists, also lawyers, judges, politicians, and so on).

But even if you have a good (e.g. middle class) background, you aren’t necessarily ending in a well paid job. This extension of the exploited is often summarized as precariat. The precariat comprises all the workers worldwide that don’t have any form of security or predictability of their future and have to constantly look for their existence.

This short overview used the perspectives of the previous phase and also added a new one: the question of desire. This list isn’t complete and I only scratched on the surfaces. But one question I still want to pose. We are still living inside Capitalism, but hasn’t anything changed since the 70s? Is history over? Are the 70s a starting point of a development that now has reached its form or is there another change?

After Postfordism?

Are we still living in a postfordist society? The answer isn’t clear. There are many thinkers that talk about digital Capitalism, surveillance Capitalism, communicative Capitalism or find other terms for new shifts. As all the shifts I presented before it isn’t always clear if there is cut or a slow transition. I’m not sure if we are in a new phase or a time of transition. It also depends on the perspective and question, if there is another shift or not. To most of the points presented in this post there can be found at least a small shift. The theories – often connected to the rise of the internet – are countless. I want to present at least one:

A new mode of making money the internet enabled is – as Nick Srnicek calls it – Platform Capitalism. That means a new kind of infrastructure arose that enabled new modes of exploitation and injustice. A good example of this is the German platform pizza.de. pizza.de offered restaurants, food chains and nearly any seller of food a website to promote their delivery services. They didn’t deliver and they dind’t make food. They just offered a platform and made a lot of money with the fee the seller’s had to pay for this platform service. (pizza.de was part of the Just Eat Takeaway.com company and is now called Lieferando, offering delivery services as well)

This is definetily a shift in creating surplus (production is somehow the wrong word) and this is not even the whole story of Platform Capitalism: Srnicek (and others) analyze a lot of different ways how platforms like Google, Facebook and Apple are shifting classical notions of production, surplus and money.

Conclusion

I hope I could give a short and not too confusing overview about the changes in Capitalism. This short showcase isn’t complete, it doesn’t deliver any data to support any theories, I don’t link it to the political policies that made the shifts possible and I haven’t talked about the different methodologies. I hope for someone new to this debate it is a helpful summary, a guide to the question “Which authors should I look up if I’m interested in X?” and some fields of study to look into. In future posts I want to go deeper into some of these topics.

[A short note at the end: there are sometimes other names for the different phases that are used to highlight different aspects of them. I didn’t want to make this post more confusing and decided to use only the most popular ones.]