This post is part of OurKingdom's Long Revolution series.
Cultural studies has always been a democratic project. This is true in several complementary senses. On the one hand, the first function of cultural studies is arguably simply this - to put into question what is apparently fixed, to bring it out into the open to de-sediment it, to make it public and to make visible its contingency, to put it up for discussion. Cultural studies is also a democratic project to the extent that it was itself a product of what now looks to have been democracy’s high moment: the decades following the second world war, which saw the representative political systems of the West achieve a degree of democratic efficacy which, albeit very far from perfect, was nonetheless impressive compared to anything that we have seen before or since: the moment when Raymond Williams could still look back upon the whole history of modernity and see it, albeit with some obvious interruptions, broadly as a history of progressive democratisation of the cultural, political, economic, and social spheres; as one ‘Long Revolution’.
At the same time, of course, even Williams in the early 60s wasn’t complacent about the successes and the future of his ‘long revolution’, and one of his major reasons for writing the book of that name was to warn of the dangers posed to it by any degeneration of social democracy into bureaucratic paternalism, or worse. If this was one of the founding gestures of the ‘New Left’, then it’s surely significant that the appeal to democracy, and the critique of its existing forms, was one of the key features of so much of the political discourse of that moment, from the Civil Rights movement to the Port Huron statement to the Prague Spring, and that this critique fed into the so-called ‘new social movements’ which emerged into prominence in the ensuing years, all of which sought to put into question some apparently stable and needlessly unequal features of existing social relations. As we all know, the development of cultural studies since the 1970s has been decisively shaped by its relations with those movements, and in some cases has become almost synonymous with the attempt to give them voices inside the academy. In this sense again, by its very nature, cultural studies has always been a democratic project.
At the same time, the potency and significance of these movements’ demands was not recognised only by their advocates within Cultural Studies or on the wider left. One of the founding documents of the New Right was the notorious 1973 report on the ‘crisis of democracy’ by the ‘Trilateral Commission’, authored by Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntingdon, and Joji Watanuki, which diagnosed a crisis in the governability of the developed world as a consequence of the ‘excess of democracy’ which such demands constituted. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that to a large extent, the term ‘neoliberalism’ simply names nothing more or less than the strategy subsequently adopted by capital in the face of this democratic challenge to its authority. Seen from this perspective, neoliberalism as such is a direct response to the democratic challenges posed at that moment, and its objectives today must still be understood not only in terms of the facilitation of capital accumulation, but also in terms of the inhibition of the emergence of any form of potent collectivity whatsoever.
What I want to do for the rest of this talk is to argue that our present situation can be understood in terms of the partial, but only partial, success of that strategy in both neutralising those demands and in undermining the conditions which had made an earlier form of democracy viable; and to ask how we can respond, as the legatees of this democratic project, to the apparent defeat of democracy on so many levels. For such has been the success of the neoliberal erosion, entrapment, and enfeeblement of democracy, that I think it is clearly accurate today to say, using a phrase from Colin Crouch, that our contemporary polities are for the most part no longer ‘democracies’ in even the most attenuated sense, but ‘post-democracies’, wherein a set of consultative, representative and legislative institutions inherited from the moment of the mid-twentieth century persist with ever-decreasing efficacy: a Fordist institutional framework increasingly unable to gain any purchase on a post-Fordist world. (I’m using the term in Crouch’s sense rather than Jacques Rancière’s here, although I will refer to the latter a little later).
The challenge for a highly plural form of collectivity is to find institutional forms by which decisions can be made in a way which does not do violence to the constitutive plurality of the group. It stands to reason, then, that the more complex and plural a group - or a whole society - becomes, the more complex, involved, and participatory must be such mechanisms if they are to remain effective. I think this was precisely the argument that figures such as Williams were already trying to make, as postmodernity came glimmering over the historical horizon in the 1960s, and it was this argument which had to be politically marginalised in order for neoliberalism to impose itself as the only governmental solution to the problems posed by postmodernity.
For what most characterises our postmodern societies, by contrast with almost any available historical example, is surely the level of toleration which they exhibit for the existence of diverse lifestyles and the expression of diverse values and opinions. And yet this cultural plurality is not matched at all by two other requisites for effective democracy: an equivalent plurality at the level of formal politics, and an institutional capacity for collective decisions to be taken and enacted. Two key phenomena result from this. On the one hand, we witness the appalling consensus which seems to be shared by almost the entire political class, which still, 4 years after the catastrophic failure of the neoliberal system, cannot allow itself seriously to entertain the prospect of any alternative to it. This brings us very close to Jacques Rancière’s own use of the term ‘postdemocracy’, to designate the ‘consensual’ decline of democratic contestation which followed in the wake of the collapse of Communism. One wonders if when Rancière coined this term back in 1995, even he could have imagined a situation in which we would see a major European country being governed by an unelected technocrat without anyone even pretending that anything different was happening (I’m referring to Italy here). On the other hand, we find ourselves inhabiting cultures which are suffused with a general sense that some things are terribly wrong, and even a fairly clear consensus about what they are - incomes are too unequal, the rich are too rich and too powerful, we are producing too much carbon dioxide - and yet apparently unable to do anything about them, to take collective decisions and to act upon them. The effective failure of the Rio summit and the ongoing inability of the Eurozone to resolve its crisis are two perfect exemplifications of this situation.
The point I want to reiterate and to emphasise here, however, is that this situation has not arisen by accident, but because it serves a very powerful set of interests and protects them from real threats; post-democracy is the outcome of neoliberalism’s attempts to neutralise the threat posed by the democratic surge (Huntington’s phrase, but I like it, and will keep using it). If we look now at the demands of that moment, at the critique of limited representative democracy which informed the programmes of the New Left, at the pioneering of decentralised and non-hierarchical forms of collective action and decision-making in the women’s movement, at the rise of demands for industrial democracy in the labour movement at this time, at the histories of autogestion and autonomia, it’s clear that not only on a symbolic level, but at the level of institutions and government, the hope for a substantial extension, transformation and reinvention of democratic institutions was a central element of that surge, and one which posed a tangible threat to the sovereignty of capital. The narrative - very widely circulated in different forms, from both the Left and the Right - which sees the New Left, the militants of ’68 and Cultural Studies - simply as symptoms or even causes of post-Fordist, postmodern, post-democracy, entirely ignores these elements of the story. This narrative - typical of commentators such as Debray in France, or the nouveaux philosophes and their followers, typical both of cultural conservatives and ultra-leftists like Zizek in the Anglophone world - tends to assume that what happened in the 60s and 70s was the emergence of a set of largely individualistic cultural demands, which could easily be met by the diversification of lifestyles which post-Fordist consumer capitalism, and the replacement of political and social democracy with the culture and polity of the market, has made possible. What this account crucially occludes is the extent to which both the militants of that moment and their enemies were always aware that the real shared core of those demands was not merely the freedom to wear jeans to work or sleep with whomever they chose, but was precisely the desire for an intensification of democracy, for a democracy which could give full expression to the diversity of the collectivities which would constitute it, opening up all kinds of questions: including, of course, the question of who we can sleep with and what we can wear to work, but also the fundamental questions of equality, of the distribution of resources and of domestic, economic and political power, of how we share power, of how we live together. The strategy of capital ever since has been to meet precisely those amongst that set of demands which would not threaten the over-arching goal of capital accumulation, while determinedly opposing the realisation of those which would.
This is a phenomenon which has been described in different aspects by many in our field or close to it. Work on gender, ecology, race, sexual culture, work and consumption, for example (from figures such as Angela McRobbie, Larry Grossberg, Diane Negra, Laurie Ouelette, Sara Ahmed, Jody Berland, Nick Couldry, Paul Gilroy, Andrew Ross, Jasbir Puar, Jodi Dean, Ashley Dawson, Nancy Fraser, Jo Littler, Lisa Duggan, Melissa Gregg, Wendy Brown, to name just a few) has highlighted the extent to which the demands of greens or of the women’s movement or anti-racists or the LGBT movements have been met to the extent that they can be satisfied by the promotion of specialised forms of consumption or the promotion of a liberal ethic of lifestyle diversity and tolerance and of a highly competitive labour market. There’s no question that these are real gains for the project of social liberalisation, and that in enabling a degree of public discussion and debate over the validity of various aspects of social existence, they constitute democratic gains as well. But in many cases these demands have been realised only to the extent that they could be detached from any wider project for democratisation, and in particular from any set of claims on the public or for the public.
So the shift from the culture of mid-twentieth century capitalism to 21st century capitalism accompanies a move away from a highly regulated, conformist, collectivist, form of social life which, for all of its oppressively homogenising elements, was nonetheless relatively amenable to intervention by political institutions which were, comparatively speaking, relatively sensitive and accountable to the needs and desires of the governed. In its place emerges a system which tolerates far higher levels of diversity and personal freedom, so long as that freedom is expressed primarily through private consumption and as long as its expression does not take the form of substantial public claims. We move from a situation in which the price of democracy is the suppression of individual desires (or rather, the demand that desires themselves conform to a pre-determined norm), to one in which the price of personal freedom is the demand that all social life operate according to the logic of market relations, and in which any form of effective democracy seems impossible.
In fact we might say that this shift merely expresses in its two aspects the image of collectivity which has informed all of bourgeois thought since Hobbes. To put it crudely, the collective for the modern mainstream tradition of Western thought is to be imagined either as an atomised and anomic set of random individuals, whose relationships with each other are merely contingent, contractual, and goal-oriented; or as a vast and homogenous entity demanding conformity and obedience. What cannot be imagined is precisely what Marx calls for: a society in which the free development of each shall be the condition for the free development of all, a mode of sociality in which the collectivity of the collective is not compromised by virtue of its not being guaranteed by fidelity to a singular norm or a singular authority. And wasn’t it it the call for just such a society, in its many aspects, which informed the ‘democratic surge’ ? And wasn’t it just this call which neoliberalism came into being in order to silence?
Of course, this shift did not take place simply in order to preserve the tyranny of the capitalist class. That isn’t how capitalism works. Capital can only retain its position to the extent that accumulation carries on, and the shift from one regime to another would not have taken place if it did not create the conditions for a new cycle of accumulation. When thinking about the causes of the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism and the implementation of neoliberalism (two processes which it is important not to confuse, but which cannot be separated), there tend to be two broad families of explanation. On the one hand, there are accounts such as David Harvey’s that concentrate on the extent to which this was simply an outcome of capital’s restless search for new markets, lower costs, and the restoration of the power it had been losing since the 1920s. On the other hand, we have accounts which tend to stress the agency of workers, youth, and other constituencies in pushing against the limits of the Fordist compromise until they broke. Negri, for example, insists that capital never wanted to break up the Fordist pact, which suited it very well, or to offer the levels of personal freedom which neoliberal culture has entailed, and that only the resistance of these constituencies forced it do so. Boltanski & Chiapello have offered some compelling historical evidence for this account, and I would say that one of the great classics of Cultural Studies, Policing the Crisis does so too. (My suspicion is that none of these accounts gives sufficient weight to the role of feminism and more diffuse kinds of proto-feminist desire in destabilising the Fordist psychosexual assemblage, but that isn’t a claim I can substantiate with any authority).
Clearly, I think, we need an account which can actually take note of both aspects of this process, grasping the extent to which capital is indeed often forced to revolutionise itself by the activities of those who resist it, but that having done so it will do everything in its power to take advantage of the new situation and to neutralise the autonomy of its enemies. The problem for capital is all at the same time to resist a direct challenge (through suppression, direct accommodation, and transformation of its own practices), to take advantage of emergent opportunities to reverse earlier losses, and to channel the forms of innovation to which the challenge gives rise in profitable directions.
I think there’s actually an interesting parallel here with some key debates in Cultural Studies. Consider the long running debate between what we might call cultural populists (after Jim McGuigan) and ideology-critics. On the one hand, the populists at least since the early 1980s, and with intellectual antecedents going back at least to the early work of EP Thompson, tend to want to stress the creative agency of consumers, readers, spectators, listeners and shoppers. On the other hand, the ideology-critics focus on the extent to which both the content and the form of most commercial culture is almost entirely compromised by various kinds of inegalitarian ideology. I wast to suggest here a perspective which can acknowledge the potency of both of these modes of analysis and the fact that they can both be true simultaneously. In fact I want to insist that we can’t understand how capitalist culture works without understanding that they are both true. So for example, when young girls devote great energy to their veneration for the latest boy-band, or obsessing over celebrity magazines, are they merely being recruited by capitalist and heterosexist ideologies, or are they really creating their own cultural space, expressing their autonomy and making their own meanings from the material around them? Surely the answer is - ‘both’. In Deleuzian terms, we could say that at the level of pure desire, it is true that what is being expressed in situations like this is primarily a positive force, a collective potential for creative expression; but that the forms of its expression are incredibly limited, captured, commodified and territorialised almost at the point of their emergence by the machinery of capital, commodity and state.
I think it’s critical to understand this process, because in fact it exemplifies one of the most basic operations of capitalism. By its nature, capitalism has to constitute sites of collective productivity and creativity: whether it’s the mechanical productivity of the factory or the semiotic productivity of the mall. But one of the key problems for capital, from the very beginning, is that when you assemble a group of people - in a factory, or a mall, or a city, or a school, or even in a call-centre or even on a social network - and give them the technological means and opportunity to be collectively productive - even inventive -then there is no guarantee that they are going to produce something from which you can easily make a profit. They have to be disciplined, the process has to be shaped and carefully managed at every stage, to ensure that what they do with their collective energy is to produce and / or consume saleable commodities under conditions which allow for the accumulation of surplus value; and this is always a complex, fraught and uncertain process which threatens to break down at every stage.
This, I think, is how we can understand the strange bifurcation which seems to affect much of contemporary culture. On the one hand, future historians will surely remember this as the moment of the social network, of youtube, of google, of open-source. At times this increasingly de-commodified culture of global yet densely networked interaction, participatory exchange and creative collaboration seems to give expression to the communicative potential of the multitude in full realisation of the hopes of Hardt & Negri. And yet at the level of symbolic content, naked competitive individualism has never been rammed down the throats of the public with such didactic force. Just look at TV shows like Big Brother, The X-Factor and The Apprentice: glorified game shows all, explicitly advocating an ethic of ruthless and amoral individualism, undercut by none of the humanistic pathos which characterised the TV soap operas of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher, even Ayn Rand, could hardly have dreamed of such a perfect pedagogic vehicle for their ideals.
Of course, we all know that at the level where profits are accumulated - in the bank accounts and stock portfolios and pension funds of the owners of Facebook, Google etc.. - there is nothing participatory or horizontal or democratic about those institutions; and of course, it is precisely in order to maintain just this state of affairs that a fierce ideology of individualism must be promoted across much of commercial culture as well as much of the labour market and education system. But it might be worth reflecting here: doesn’t the very explicitness and intensity of this liberal didacticism bespeak an underlying awareness and fear of the democratic potential which is latent in a networked world? And isn’t this fear in fact a fear of a certain desire for democracy which we have seen expressed at once, albeit in different forms, in the disintermediating explosion of social media and in the public squares and spaces from Madrid to Cairo to Athens to New York to Oakland to Porto Allegre? In all of these spaces, the demand either for effective representative democracy or for something more than liberal representative democracy can deliver has taken militant and explicit form in recent years. And under such circumstances, don’t the hopes and visions and demands which Huntington named ‘the democratic surge’ acquires a new valency once again? For this is surely the moment when it becomes apparent both that there can be no going back to the Fordist mode of democracy, and that the market democracy promised by neoliberalism cannot be realised either, and can never deliver on its promises?
It’s from this perspective that I think we can understand the reasons for, and the implications of, some of the institutional processes which affect not just our work as scholars, but the work of many of our colleagues across the public and private sectors, in the so-called ‘creative industries’, in fact across much of the global economy. I’m referring here to the proliferation of managerial techniques and bureaucratic controls, quantifying exercises, compulsory audits which typify what Clarke and Newman have called ‘the managerial state’, although they are certainly not confined to the public sector today, and which make up the infrastructure of what Deleuze called the ‘societies of control’. It’s notable that in the contemporary context, these seem to proliferate at precisely the points where the most intense and creative forms of collective interaction might be expected to take place - universities, arts bodies, laboratories, hospitals. Compare the level of regulation to which university workers are subject today with that which has been imposed upon bankers, even since 2008. Less than 50 years ago, in the 1960s, management theory textbooks still warned that the most dangerous figure in a commercial organisation, the type who needed to be contained and curtailed for the sake of corporate efficiency and accountability, was the swashbuckling, risk-taking salesman. Today, as we all know, it is the risk-addicted entrepreneur who, we are still told, simply cannot be subject to too many rules without stifling their creative productivity; and yet the interactions which take place between scholars, students, doctors, nurses, patients, artists, audiences and co-workers in general, are subject to the most stringent forms of supervision.
At times, of course, the motivation for this regulation is the attempt to impose, as violently as necessary, competitive market relations where otherwise relations of co-operation and collaboration might prevail. It’s Foucault who points out the crucial difference between neoliberalism and classical liberalism: classical liberalism thinks that we’re all naturally competitive entrepreneurs who will behave accordingly if the state just stays out of our business; neoliberalism fears that this is not so, that left to our own devices we might degenerate into some kind of primitive communism, and that the state must therefore compel us to behave in accordance with liberal norms whether we want to or not, for our own good. And yet this account alone is not quite enough to explain this almost psychotic proliferation of managerialism. To see the reasons for it, I think we have to understand the extent to which all sites of collective creativity which are not immediately subsumed in the process of commodity-circulation and capital accumulation are increasingly terrifying to capital and its agents. For capital, uncommodified collective creativity is always dangerous, and the point of managerialist bureaucratisation is precisely to inhibit it, to destabilise it, to ensnare it. That’s why we experience bureaucracy as so frustrating: because to frustrate is precisely its intention. The very purpose of managerialist bureaucracy is to frustrate the expression of that creative potential for collaboration which, according to Deleuze (or really, according to my reading of John Protevi’s reading of Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza) is the very stuff of joy. And according to Deleuze & Guattari and to their follower Negri, the expression of this joy, of this positive desire and potential for connectivity, is also the very stuff of revolution, and of democracy as such. Of course there is also such a thing as enabling bureaucracy, as exemplified by the democratic paternalism of the welfare state at its best, but this only makes it all the more important to identify and critique those forms of bureaucracy which enable nothing except the hegemony of finance capital, and to understand the nature of their mechanisms.
What all of these mechanisms - compulsory self-auditing, performance-related pay, arbitrary target-setting, the redefinition of public-service users as customers etc. etc. - do is to inhibit some very specific types of relation between actors in a social field. They inhibit relations of collaboration in general - trying to replace them either with pseudo-commercial or with competitive relations. They inhibit spontaneous relations. They inhibit reflective and deliberative relations. They inhibit relations which are inventive in that they allow for the possible emergence of new objectives as well as the fulfilment of predetermined ones.
I would suggest that one way of theorising their consistency is to say that these mechanisms work against any possibility of experiencing what I will call ‘the virtuality of the social’. By this I mean something close to Gilbert Simondon’s idea of the trans-individual / pre-individual, the field of potential constituted by the infinite network of possible relations into which any individual, or rather, any event of individuation, must emerge. Hanna Arendt argued decades ago that the social as such should be conceived as characterised by an inherent complexity and unpredictability, because of the irreducible relationality of every singularity within it. I would suggest that we can think of this inherent complexity as a condition of possibility for all of the creativity which human (and para-human, and extra-human) sociality is capable of generating. Indeed, I would suggest that theattraction of the idea of the free market for many thinkers is precisely its apparent capacity to express in concrete and quasi-institutional form something of this dynamic quality of the social. But on the other hand, I would argue that it’s crucial for us not to accept that the market is the only form which free, democratic, transversal modes of sociality may take. The fact that the market is not the only mechanism, or even always the best one, for expressing this ‘virtual’ power of the social is clearly demonstrated by the history of neoliberal ‘reforms’ aimed at forcing market relations upon scenes where they do not usefully obtain. From this perspective, the problem with neoliberal marketisation is precisely its monomaniacal insistence that the virtual power inherent in social relations only ever actualise itself in the form of saleable commodities. This itself is a trap, an inhibitor of true creativity, rather than the enabling motivator which the entire tradition of liberal economics still believes it to be (which is why, incidentally, neoliberal economics cannot do anything to facilitate productivity in the long-term, which is basically why Europe is in the hole it’s in right now.)
Okay - so we’ve got to a pretty abstract position here. Are any specific analytical, political or strategic conclusions to be drawn from this set of reflections?
Well, analytically, I think I’ve probably said enough. Essentially I’m proposing that a synthesis between the classical Marxist denunciation of neoliberalism and the neo-autonomist insistence on recognising the collective agency of the multitude is not just possible but necessary if we are to understand the genesis and the full complexity of our historical moment, and the nature of the global crisis of democracy, and that this also enables a synthesis of the ‘populist’ and ‘critical’ perspectives within cultural studies. On a personal note, I find this to be the only way I can make sense of the following paradox. Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor council estate (that’s a housing project, if you're American) in the North of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.
Politically, strategically I think there are some definite conclusions and I will point to some of them here. On the one hand, in terms of positive interventions, I would say that this analysis enables us to see the full importance of projects such as Occupy and the Indignados movement in Spain, not to mention the projects circulating around and through the World Social Forum and the bold experiments with participatory democracy made in places like Brazil and Bolivia. These are only first steps, barely more than diagrammatic sketches; but what they are sketches of is what we need more than anything: forms of democracy which are sufficiently robust yet open, dense yet mobile, to be able to match, eventually, the complexity and fluidity of postmodern capitalism, and to make it possible once again for potent collectivities to emerge which can actually take decisions about the world, and act upon them, despite capital’s intention that they should not. These are the laboratories in which the new democracy is being tested.
On the other hand, in terms of negative interventions, one implication of this analysis is the need to continue to politicise and activate struggles against managerialism, and not always to subordinate those struggles to the more traditional ones of defending jobs, pay and pensions. I realise this might sound glib, when those traditional economic supports are under attack in so many places. but I think it is actually a crucial point: for the most part, labour struggles in most of the world have paid very little attention to the problem of managerialism except when this has become bound up with and subordinated to a struggle against austerity measures; and in almost all cases, struggles against managerialism have taken the form of defences of traditional professional privileges. This will not suffice. Managerialism must be opposed because it is one of the key strategies through which capital seeks to intensify exploitation of all members of a particular social field, not just public-service professionals, and it is on these terms that it should be opposed by explicit demands for more collaborative and co-operative modes of work. We should not be afraid to revisit the moment of autogestion, workers self-management and industrial democracy, of student demands for reforms more radical than a mere expansion of consumer choice in the curriculum: we’ve been told for long enough that these are anachronistic ideas which cannot work. It’s surely clear by now that these are the only ideas which might work.
And what of cultural studies? Well, as I’ve been arguing more-or-less polemically for some time now, cultural studies can only benefit from recognising the truth of its situation, and that truth is that cultural studies no longer inhabits the context which gave it birth (the golden age of social democracy), nor the one in which it came to maturity (the moment when the residually social-democratic university still provided a relatively safe haven from ascendant neoliberalism). I think it is very likely that the intensification of neoliberalism’s attention to sites of knowledge production and immaterial labour might make it much more difficult for us to seek refuge in the university as we have tended to do, and we might well have to put energy into the invention of new kinds of institution, as many involved in the new wave of free universities, online learning exchanges, free repositories, etc, are doing already.
At the same time, it is worth reminding ourselves just what an achievement it is to have survived this long under such conditions, and to carry on doing the work that we do. This conference, the one great gathering of our discipline, is nearing the end of its second decade, and this year there were more applications than ever; and we are here in Paris, in a country which has just achieved the feat of electing a fully socialist government for the first time since the earliest phase of European neoliberalism. All this is surely proof enough that, as hard as the times may be, we’re not done yet.
‘Crossroads in Cultural Studies’ is the biennial conference of the Association for Cultural Studies (ACS), the international organisation for Cultural Studies scholars, and is the major international gathering of that discipline. This month the conference was held in Paris, where Jeremy Gilbert was one of the plenary speakers, giving his lecture alongside the renowned philosopher Jacques Rancière. This is the text of that lecture.
Read more from OurKingdom's 'Long Revolution' series.