Towards a New Mainstream
Thank you for flying with transnational commodification
we shall shortly be arriving in mayhem
if there is anybody on board who can impersonate a pilot
it would be of comfort to the other passengers…
Never have these lines from Nick Land’s 1992 theoretical-fiction Circuitries seemed more acute. After 2011, it would be perverse for anyone to talk about the end of history any more. It was as if, after a prolonged period of emaciation, history has been bingeing. The density of world-historic events in 2011 was such that it seemed almost impossible either to keep track of them, or to believe that they had all happened in one year: the Arab Spring, the death of bin Laden, the Breivik atrocity, the Japanese tsunami, the riots in England, the Euro crisis, the emergence of the Occupy movement. We are in the midst of almighty, and perhaps unprecedented, chaos. The world has never been more interconnected, but parliamentary politics has never seemed more impotent. The globalised systems connecting the planet are vectors for financial contagion, not channels for expressing collective agency. There are no credible experts. Mainstream economists have been radically discredited, not only by their failure to predict the financial collapse of 2008, but their complicity in it. Professional politicians designed for an era of supposedly post-political administration, in which nodding compliance to business was all that was required, are unable to adapt to the new conditions, in which imaginative thinking, decisiveness and charismatic interventions are at a premium. In an attempt to orientate ourselves, we seek historical parallels. The most ominous is, of course, the 1930s, with the prospect of Europe slipping from neoliberal consensus towards internecine and perhaps ethnocidal conflict. While politicians flail and bluster on a collapsed centre ground, the far right are ready to ‘impersonate pilots’ for populations that are bewildered and shell-shocked by everything that has happened since 2008, and intensely anxious about what it is to come.
If anything is clear from all this, it is that two sequences are now playing out. The first is the intensification of the neoliberal programme. We are now seeing a ferocious final-phase neoliberalism, taking the form of violent asset-stripping of publicly funded institutions and infrastructure by a financial capitalism that, as Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi put it in his latest book in English, After The Future, “has achieved autonomy from social life”. 2008 may have seen the discrediting of neoliberalism, but neoliberal culture has successfully decomposed working class consciousness, and – it seems – destroyed the conditions for any re-composition. “I think that long-lasting neoliberal rule has eroded the cultural and material bases of social civilisation, which was the progressive core of modernity”, Berardi writes. “And this is irreversible. We have to face it. The mutation produced by global capital intermingled with recombinant technologies cannot be undone.”
The second sequence is the faltering but nevertheless very definite emergence of an alternative. A year ago, a movement in the US on the scale of Occupy Wall Street would have been unimaginable. But what form will this movement, now an inchoate alliance of the discontented, ultimately take? Berardi warns that complaining and petitioning are futile; public funds will be cut, and they will not be returning in any foreseeable future.
“Only withdrawal, passivity, abandonment of the labour market, of the illusions of full employment and a fair relation between labour and capital, can open up a new way. Only self-reliant communities leaving the field of social competition can open a way to a new hope.”
Certainly, the crucial question now facing those who seek an escape from the capitalist catastrophe concerns the balance to be struck between withdrawal and participation. Wherever possible, it is crucial that we refuse capitalism’s injunction to participate on its terms. We’ve already seen the emerging movements using network culture to produce new forms of solidarity – the question is how these can be sustained. But, even supposing it was possible, our total withdrawal from the ‘mainstream’ could result in a catastrophe even worse than the one we are in at the moment. If we withdraw from mainstream politics and media, the far right certainly will not. At the same time, if the neoliberal era has taught us anything, it’s that there is little to be gained from competing on the terrain established by business and its lackeys. A strategic retreat from those kind of spaces is therefore wise, but we must do what the neoliberal right did, and think about the medium and long-term. By thinking ahead, neoliberals were ready to impose what had previously seemed politically impossible. So rather than seeing the inevitable graduation of some in the Occupy movement from radical outsiders to professional politicians, we should plan ahead for how this transition is to be managed. Our task is to build a new mainstream media and politics, and paradoxically, this may be the ultimate legacy of our current withdrawal.
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