There’s an interesting gloss on postmodernism in the opening chapter of Hardt and Negri’s Labor of Dionysus:
Postmodern capitalism should be understood first, or as a first approximation, in terms of what Marx called the phase of the real subsumption of society under capital. In the previous phase (that of the formal subsumption), capital operated a hegemony over social production, but there still remained numerous production processes that originated outside of capital as leftovers from the precapitalist era. Capital subsumes these foreign processes formally, bringing them under the reign of capitalist relations. In the phase of the real subsumption, capital no longer has an outside in the sense that these foreign processes of production have disappeared. All productive processes arise within capital itself and thus the production and reproduction of the entire social world take place within capital. The specifically capitalist rules of productive relations and capitalist exploitation that were developed in the factory have now seeped outside the factory walls to permeate and define all social relations—this is the sense in which we insist that contemporary society should now be recognized as a factory-society. (Labor of Dionysus, 30)
This is the common post/neo-Autonomia read of postmodernism, and what is sketched out somewhat briefly in this quote reaches its full elucidation in the pages of Empire. I see nothing to quibble about in this periodization at all, and it dovetails nicely Fredric Jameson’s own Marxist analysis of the postmodern condition, which in turn relies upon Ernest Mandel’s proposed historical model of capitalist development.
This model is triadic, basing itself upon three stages or “long waves” of technological evolution. Within each long wave, the entirety of capitalism is transformed by these technological shifts : beginning in the 1840s, production was governed by steam-power, which was superseded in the 1890s by electrification. The third stage emerged in the postwar era, and was characterized by the proliferation of electronics, and most importantly the rise of computational technology. (Mandel’s model is close to the interpretation of the Kondratiev wave posed by Perez and Freeman, but ultimately deviates from it. In my opinion Perez and Freeman have the superior understanding of these trends, but that’s a post for a different time).
This third stage is what Mandel dubs “late capitalism”, which derives from the character unique to the conditions that prompted its development. The first wave was “market capitalism”, the capitalism that Marx analyzed in his own day; the second was “monopoly capitalism”, the era of gigantic trusts and imperialism. Third-wave or ‘late capitalism’ is characterized by both the transnationalization of the capitalist system (the post-war mode of globalization) and the rise of consumer capitalism. Here’s how Jameson sums it up:
…late or multinational or consumer capitalism, far from being inconsistent with Marx’s great nineteenth-century analysis, constitutes, on the contrary, the purest form of capital yet to have emerged, a prodigious expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas . This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way. One is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious : that is , the destruction of precapitalist Third World agriculture by the Green Revolution, and the rise of the media and the advertising industry. At any rate, it will also have been clear that my own cultural periodization of the stages of realism, modernism, and postmodernism is both inspired and confirmed by Mandel’s tripartite scheme . (Postmodernism, 36)
Capitalist relations of production appear in the postmodern era to be a sort of social transcendental. Capital seems to have no other. Social capital is no longer merely the orchestrator but actually appears as the producer on the terrain of social production… In postmodernism, in the phase of the real subsumption of labor under capital, capital seems to have realized its dream and achieved its independence. With the expansion of its productive bases in the Third World, the shift of certain types of production from North to South, the greater compatibility and permeability of markets, and the facilitated networks of monetary flows, capital has achieved a truly global position. (Labor of Dionysus, 30-31)
Following these twin tracks, we can thus understand postmodernism as the first historical point in which Marx’s strange reflections in the fifteenth chapter of Capital Volume III can be properly understood. “Capital comes more and more to the fore as a social power, whose agent is the capitalist. This social power no longer stands in any possible relation to that which the labour of a single individual can create. It becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power.” This also brings us back to the terrain of U/Acc, as this chapter was the subject of some of Garton’s earliest excavations, as well as to the dark concerns of Land: capital autonomization is not to be understood as being akin to some faraway Kurzweilian singularity, it is already underway… (and thus the distinction between modernity and postmodernism becomes, once again, mired in ambiguity)
A similar trajectory is sketched by Primož Krašovec in “Alien Capital”, which pushes back gently on particular strands of autonomist thinking:
A crucial factor in understanding how capital operates in our time is its ‘real autonomy’. This is a point where even the best attempts, for instance that of Marx, are ambivalent, for instance the concept of real subsumption as an appropriation and subjugation of something human (and not an autonomous development of something non-human, alien that initially harnesses human practices and institutions and human material) or the concept of general intellect (GI) that is particularly important for exploring the intellect of capital. Marx and post-operaist authors, who used the concept of GI to the largest extent, mostly act as if what is embodied in the modern industrial technology as GI were only some kind of an embodied, materialised human intellect and not something alien. The scheme human intellect → materialisation in the system of machinery is still only a humanist theory of alienation that takes place on the relation the subject’s predicate → materialisation in the object. However, real subsumption is not a process of appropriating something human through capital; it is a competitively determined real autonomy of capital’s functioning.
Running the social-factory thesis and the capitalist autonomization thesis together presents a picture of postmodernism as the moment of intense polarization in terms of potentially emancipatory politics, in the sense that it seems to hold open the possibility of escape, while on the other it seems to close it down. In the case of capitalist autonomization, it is essential to consider the processes of capitalist automation – and this is indeed part and parcel of Marx’s own long-range thinking about capitalist development, which holds that constant capital (machines, tools, materials, etc.) will rise in prominence and soak up a greater and greater lionshare of available investable capital in contrast to variable capital, that is, capital allotted to human labor. In this process the human is leveled, integrated into the gears of a production system that seems to have a life of its own (as described in the “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse), and perhaps ultimately eliminated outright. As the laboring class dissipates, “value” – that force that governs capitalist production – bottoms out. At the horizon of this we have an understanding of the postcapitalist situation in a way that is encapsulated in the Jehuist slogan: “communism is free time and nothing else”.
The emergence of the social-factory, however, problematizes this, at least in short-term thinking. The Autonomist argument, which is developed in parallel by Deleuze and Guattari in the closing chapters of A Thousand Plateaus (D&G had developed personal ties to the Autonomia by this point, and cite thinkers like Mario Tronti over the course of ATP, so it’s likely that mutual influence was flowing both ways where this topic is concerned), takes the scenario described in the Grundrisse’s machinic fragment and applies it to the whole of society. No longer is it just the industrial zone that operates as an “automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs” – everything is integrated into the circuits of this unplanned, market-coordinated self-moving machine. A cybernetic capitalism, proper to this age of machines and information. Having just developed the opposition between work and free-time as the distinction between striated and smooth space-time, Deleuze and Guattari write
Surplus labor, capitalist organization in its entirety, operates less and less by the striation of space-time corresponding to the physicosocial concept of work. Rather, it is as though human alienation through surplus labor were replaced by a generalized “machinic enslavement”, such that one might furnish surplus-value without doing any work (children, the retired, the unemployed, television viewers, etc.) Not only does the user as such tend to become an employee, but capitalism operates less on a quantity of labor than by a complex qualitative process bringing into play modes of transportation, urban models, the media, the entertainment industries, ways of perceiving and feeling – every semiotic system. It is as though, at the outcome of striation that capitalism was able to carry out to an unequal point of perfection, circulating capital necessarily recreated, reconstituted, a sort of smooth space in which the destiny of human beings is recast. (A Thousand Plateaus, 492)
Postmodern capture is, then, the process through which the cultivation of cutting-edge technologies proliferate, on the one hand, non-traditional means of labor and even the elimination of labor in full, while on the other hand it makes the possible the self-perpetuation of the system itself via the activities made possible by this reconfiguration: a fiery circuit, plugged directly into the mutagenic discharges of libidinal energy swirling about underneath the social. “Purest form of capitalism yet” indeed!
Here’s the obligatory Xenogothic link (he’s been hitting it out the park recently with his blog posts, as always). He writes in his most recent installment on his ongoing series on communism:
I believe there is an opportunity here for us, one which I think Fisher was aware of too: the triumph of “communicative capitalism” is perhaps not something to entirely deride. Communication and communism share the “com-” prefix for good reason and the malleability of this corner of technological society is, I think, particularly promising when considering efforts towards other goals. The internet promised this radical social fragmentation and upheaval but ultimately it failed to deliver, monopolised by the likes of Google and Facebook, consolidated like the rest of our realities. As distrust in these monopolies proliferates, however, we’re reentering a moment of great potential in which the fragmentation of tech monopolies — mirroring the current instability of our nation-states — will open up new doors to new ways of being on- and offline.
I would suggest that this is connected to the industrial disentermediation that I’ve touched on in two short poasts thus far (here and here), and hopefully develop further in a Vast Abrupt essay on Marx, Proudhon, and Sorel that I hope to have done by the end of next week. In the meantime, it’s interesting to note how XG’s descriptions here mirror quite well the “high connection, low integration” diagonalization that Land deploys his in reflections on patchwork. This is also how we might consider industrial disintermediation to unfold as well: high connectivity (cybernetic circuits, economic circuits, etc) and low integration (the progressive decentralization of the means of production). The real question is how such an emergent possibility space will intermesh with the postmodern condition: will it reinforce it, or will it break from it – and will this break constitute the opening of divergent pathways, or only serve to reinforce deeper mechanisms of capture?