Hello. Before I get started, I’d like to thank the organizers of this conference for granting me the opportunity to present this short paper today, and also for giving me a professional reason to return to Chicago, which until very recently was my home. Oregon is lovely, but there is simply no place on earth that can compare to Chicago in spring. This is also my first conference presentation as a graduate student, so this is really quite a special experience for me. Thank you also for giving me a chance to talk about some big questions that have been on my mind recently. Also, before I begin, I have to compliment the previous two speakers for their really excellent papers. I look forward to chatting more after this session.
It’s 2018, and the old political systems of the United States and Europe seem to be — to put it lightly — under strain. Everyone has a diagnosis for this, of course. Conservatives argue that it’s a righteous backlash of the ‘real’ people against upstart movements that threaten social order. Liberals talk about the breakdown of norms… On the left, we’re more likely to talk about it as a crisis of liberal democracy, or democracy per se, and we’re able to connect it generally with the system of capitalism — with the political crisis either being understood as symptomatic of the normal operations of capital, or figured as one expression of a general world-historic crisis of capitalism. But however we choose to interpret it, we have a definite belief that capitalism is bad for democracy. And that belief is correct. Today, we worry that democracy is being eroded away, and we base our strategies on reclaiming and defending democracy against our enemies, and using it as a platform to win other changes we desire.
This is a good idea — we need to rescue democracy! But I want to suggest today that our task may be larger, in the sense that it’s not just democracy under threat. What if the thing under threat is political life, full stop? If by ‘democracy’ we mean the principle that the people (however defined) should rule itself, instead of being ruled in the name of a part of the people, or by some external principle, then by ‘political life’ I mean something more basic — the very notion, not that the people should rule, but that anyone can ‘rule’ at all, that humans are even able to legitimately set the terms of their social order, no matter what form that might take — democracy, dictatorship, tribe, republic. Today I want to argue that under capitalism, there is a tendency not only for democracy to be undermined, but for political life in general to be eroded. This erosion moves towards a place where the very ideas of human self-rule are stripped of meaning; ‘democracy’, ‘dictatorship’, or any other term to indicate the possibility of power expressed in the name of humans become drained of content.
This is happening through what we can call capitalist ‘expropriation’, which is when the ontological status of a thing — its nature as an entity that exists with some autonomous status — is violated by the operations of capital’s economic logic. My argument will proceed like this: first, I’ll sketch out a picture of capitalism as a society (instead of merely an economic system). Second, I’ll explain my interpretation of expropriation as a process of ‘ontological encroachment’, which is slightly different in emphasis than some other uses of the term. Third, I’ll make a short detour to summarize two important recent contributions to the analysis of capitalism and politics, one from Wendy Brown, the other from Nancy Fraser. With all these pieces set out and defined, I’ll see if I can make a logical case for why capitalism has a built-in tendency to undermine political life. I’ll conclude by arguing that any conceivable path to what Erich Fromm called the ‘sane society’ must begin by rescuing a distinctly political life and political subjectivity. That could be achieved through democratic movements of the left, but I think it is important strategically to recognize that the two problems — the crisis of democracy, and the crisis of the political — are different challenges proceeding at different levels of social reality.
What is capitalism? As it turns out, it’s more than we thought. We’ve been trained to think of it first and foremost as an economic system, one premised on private property in the means of production, a class system, and formally free wage labor, on the one hand, and self-expanding value and markets for commodities, on the other. The former we can call ‘production’ and the latter ‘circulation’. But a large and growing literature highlights the ways that these aspects of capitalism, the front-story, depend on other parts of reality that are non-economic, not oriented around accumulation. These include, broadly, the spheres of natural ecology and social reproduction. Natural ecology generates the material inputs that are made into commodities, absorbs the destructive waste arising from that production, and (of course) constitutes the basic conditions for all life on the planet. Social reproduction refers to the numerous forms of daily and intergenerational maintenance of human life and society. Under capitalism, it takes a special form as the complex of processes, usually gendered, responsible for maintaining and delivering human labor-power to the ‘factory gates’ of capital, where accumulation can proceed in the form of commodity production. This is a simple but powerful point: when we understand that the non-economic parts of reality — like the air we breathe, or all the work we do to get ready in the morning or relax in the evening — are necessary for capitalism to survive and accumulate, then our understanding of how far the reach of capital extends, and what counts as anticapitalist struggle, are expanded massively.
2. expropriation as ‘ontological encroachment’
There is at least one other ‘hidden abode’ besides natural ecology or social reproduction, but before we turn to it I need to explain the concept of ‘expropriation’. Expropriation is the dark matter of capitalism. It is accumulation’s gigantic shadow, and the dialectical antinomy between these two forces is one way to understand the whole history of the system. The concept is important so I’ll dwell on it for a little while.
There are, I think, three helpful ways to use the term ‘expropriation’. The most basic definition is simply that expropriation is theft. When capital expropriates, it steals, violently transferring value from one place to another, and creating no value in the process. It is the opposite of investment in production, which does create value — both exchange-value and some use-value, though the latter is made only by accident. A different way to think about the idea is to orient it in reference to property, as the middle syllables of the word would suggest. This property-taking is the alienated counterpart of appropriation, property-making. Marx, following Hegel, recognized the latter as an inescapable condition of human existence. In the Grundrisse, Marx describes it this way: “…all production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society…. That there can be no property and hence no society where some form of property does not exist is a tautology. An appropriation that does not make something into property is a contradicto in subjecto.” The error, or lie, of bourgeois ideology was to conflate human appropriation in general with the creation of alienated private property. This latter is instead the outcome of expropriation. In English, this term referred originally to appropriating title without an equivalent value given in exchange (i.e. theft). Marx defined it most simply as “appropriation… without exchange”, property-making without the equality present in all relations of genuine exchange, and he described it most vividly in his famous chapters in Capital on ‘so-called primitive accumulation’, though that term is flawed in a number of ways.
Expropriation was crucial to the consolidation of capitalism through the mercantilist era, and integral to Marx’s own analysis of the social relations of that system. Merchant capital itself was predicated on a form of appropriation without (equivalent) exchange, in the form of ‘buying low and selling high’. The engorgement of capital’s commercial circuits with wealth through this arbitrage was important to the rise of properly accumulative productive capital later on in the era of competitive, or liberal, capitalism beginning in the late 18th century. But unrecompensed property-’making’ took other, more decisive forms in both these historical regimes of accumulation. These included the violent dispossession of peasant and tribal indigenous land in capital’s European heartland and American peripheries, respectively; and, closely related, the enslavement and extermination of millions of African, indigenous American, and some Asian peoples. The theft of land enabled the legal establishment of private property in that land, but the specific phenomenon of dispossession from land and society — to become landless ‘free’ workers or chattel slaves — points towards a more expansive and revealing sense of ‘expropriation’. This is what John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, drawing on Karl Polanyi, describe as ‘expropriation without reciprocity’ in a recent article for Monthly Review.
This wider view of expropriation and its function for capital — connoting not just confiscation of legal title, but more generally forms of ‘appropriational movements’ that deny any ‘adequacy of response’, in the sense of providing “use values that are of commensurate importance and represent the fulfillment of needs on all sides”, in Foster and Clark’s words — is the point of departure for assessing aspects of reality that resist marketized value-reckoning. These are what we have already described — natural ecology and social reproduction. Capital can’t put a price on the former and by definition doesn’t want to for the latter. These spheres are subject to expropriation, rather than waged appropriation with exchange — though it is important to note that Marx conceived exploitation in production as a variety of expropriation. Exploitation is expropriation, though for purposes of analysis we can draw a distinction.
The effects of capital’s expropriation are well-understood for the realms of natural ecology and social reproduction. For the former, expropriation means metabolic disruption, a rending-apart of those relations — internal to nature and between nature and human society — that make nature’s ‘free gifts’ possible in the first place. This finds concrete expression today in multiplying crises of the geobiosphere, as the earth’s ‘planetary boundaries’ are discovered and then recklessly breached. For the sphere of social reproduction, expropriation has generally meant regimes of gendered, formally unremunerated work done in the home, sustained at different historical moments by a shifting admixture of patriarchal ideology, state supports, and pragmatic ‘survival projects’ within the working class, and conditioned in the last instance by biological sex differences in parturition and childrearing. In the neoliberal era, financialization of the economy and the rise of a liberal feminist ideology of gender-equality and individual success through employment have degraded the status of social-reproductive work, contributing to what Nancy Fraser calls a general ‘crisis of care’ in this sphere. Maintaining both sorts of theft over the long arc of capitalism, and escalating them sharply in the era of globalized monopoly-finance capital, has produced extremely serious contradictions for the capitalist system and human life in general.
I use expropriation in a slightly different sense then either Marx or Foster and Clark. My approach is closer to the critical theory of Nancy Fraser, who has recently made some brilliant contributions towards theorizing a non-economistic, non-dualistic picture of capitalism. In a 2014 piece for New Left Review, she emphasizes how the non-economic realms of capitalist society have different ways of being that are separate from the values of capital’s ‘front-story’, characterized by ideas like growth, equal exchange, negative liberty, and individual choice. These spheres possesses different ‘normativities’ — bundles of social-reproductive norms like care, reciprocity, and kinship, or ecological principles like metabolism, interconnection, and very long cyclical movements of time. Fraser is arguing here explicitly against György Lukács’ prediction that capitalism would eventually extend a commodity logic to all areas of social life. But the existence of these qualitatively different realms, Fraser notes, does not mean that they are outside capitalism — rather, capital relies on parts of its institutional topography having different principles of organization. For example, the existence of a care ethic, which of course manifests historically and spatially in many different ways, is an advantage because it reinforces social reproduction. At the same time, a care ethic is possibly a political basis for resistance against capital’s expropriative logic, what Fraser calls ‘boundary struggles’.
The emphasis here is on the qualitative differences between capital’s valorization process and the ‘external’ or ‘background’ conditions — pick your spatial metaphor — from which it steals. At this level of analysis, Fraser conceptualizes these areas as possessing distinct ‘social ontologies’, fundamentally different ways of existing. Here I take a middle-ground between Lukács and Fraser. With Fraser, I think it is correct that actually-existing historical capitalism depends upon these non-economic realms; but with Lukács, I also think that capital’s expropriative processes move tendentially to extend the commodity logic outward. This is the part of my paper where I say the ‘c-word’ of marxism — it’s a contradiction! Capital needs parts of reality to not be capitalist, but it also tries ceaselessly to crush everything into the procrustean bed of the commodity form. This is what I call ontological encroachment.
This point is of course implicit in a property-focused treatment of ‘expropriation’, but to me, it’s made more clear in this second, ontology-(or alienation) focused interpretation. The former is useful for analyzing parts of reality that capital expropriates in such a way as to literally take and make private property — enclosure of commons, enslavement of humans — or when we want to speak in concrete terms of value, as in the labor-exploitation process. The latter is useful for indicating both how capital functionally depends on things we usually understand to be non-capitalist (like, say, mothering) and when we wish to analyze ‘boundary conditions’ that mostly escape concrete forms of property-based alienation, but which are still alienated in a more subtle way, advanced primarily through ideology.
I’ve alluded a couple of times to another boundary condition that capital expropriates, in addition to nature and social reproduction. This third background condition, in Fraser’s analysis, is the realm of political life, or polity for short. Polity is the field of social life where humans continuously set and contest the terms of their social order, no matter what form that might take — democracy, dictatorship, tribe, republic. Capitalism in general depends on human political structures — states, hegemons, whatever — to do many things, like juridically constructing formally ‘free’ labor, enforcing contracts, suppressing anticapitalist movements and disciplining surplus populations, organizing some parts of investment (especially in technology), creating markets, regulating the money supply, and spending to prevent stagnation. Political life is also frequently the preferred means of carrying out and sustaining expropriation, especially via global imperialism.
But polity is not reducible to the economic functions it fulfills for capital. Since the fracturing apart of economic and political life during the transition from feudalism, polity has maintained a distinct ontological status apart from economy, even though they are mutually dependent fields. Public power — preeminently derived from law and legitimate violence — is distinct from private power — derived mainly from hunger and other bodily needs that can be secured only through the wage. Polity is normatively organized around non-economic ideas like citizenship, sovereignty, legitimacy, the ‘people’. In its more mundane or degraded moments, it is perhaps more characterized by bureaucratic ideals — rationality, efficiency, ‘public service’. At other times, it can be bloodthirsty and exclusionary. But at its best, this is the only area of human social life that holds out the possibility of collective human progress.
4. expropriation of polity
Polity is unlike natural ecology or social reproduction in that it is frequently the vehicle or lever by which expropriation is carried out. States have taken the lead in plundering nature, constructing racialized status hierarchies, and enforcing the gendered division of labor. But as a background condition to capital, with a distinct non-economic being, polity is also something that in principle is subject to expropriation. Generally, this would imply a situation where the ontological integrity of polity is under attack by economy. Those things we conceive of as political matters — both material, like the direct capacities of the state, and ideological-normative, like ideas of the ‘public’ or sovereignty and so forth — these would begin to be transferred to the domain of the economic. Services would be privatized, public spending would not just stimulate accumulation but would occur virtually at the behest of capital, and the political class would increasingly treat the interests of firms as normatively equivalent or superior to specifically-political interests of the people, the state, or whatever other non-economic constituency forms the basis of political life. More insidiously, the very categories of that political life would begin to be interpreted through an economic lens…
Until relatively recent times, polity in the core countries has mostly avoided expropriation. The story of political life in the world core, from the transition out of feudalism to the onset of neoliberalism, was one of fairly uninterrupted consolidation and expansion. First, during the mercantilist era and the beginning of the liberal or industrial era, polity’s project was to carve out an ontological space distinct from that of the economy. The connection between polity and economy was of course intimate, but basically one-dimensional — the job of public powers in relation to capital was to create the conditions for an economy based on exploitation. It did this by expropriating the other background conditions in the process of primary accumulation, not by regulating production directly. With the rise of an organized industrial proletariat, polity — by now instantiated in the three terrains of the state, the Habermasian public sphere, and the nascent political organizations of workers — acquired new confidence and material powers. Liberal norms that were previously neutral or tied to bourgeois political theory began to be repurposed for antagonistic critiques of the excesses of expropriation, as in the case of J.S. Mill, or of economy itself, as with Marx and Engels.
Meanwhile, the development of national identity infused polity with a potent new force, one which contributed both to progressive anti-expropriative social movements (especially those arrayed against imperialism), and of course also to astonishingly brutal — but quite explicitly political — inter-imperialist wars. At its most sophisticated, polity engaged in revolutionary struggle to free both itself and some elements of social reproduction and nature from the rule of capital entirely. By and large, revolution wasn’t on the agenda, but polity nonetheless continued to gain more power and new capacities. The mid-twentieth century saw polity for the first time tasked with regulating economy on a large scale; at certain moments it must have seemed like the tyranny of capital might be dethroned as the reality principle and replaced instead with human political will. Through this whole period, the only plausible examples of political power actually losing ground to capital would be certain fascist states, as Franz Neumann argued in regards to the Nazi state, which originated the favorite neoliberal technique of privatization in an era when all the other major powers were moving in the opposite direction.
In the neoliberal era, now approaching the half-century mark, the direction of polity’s evolution, the range of its capacities and the autonomy of its meanings, has been decisively readjusted.
In a 2015 article in Critical Historical Studies, Fraser argued that there is a general tendency in capitalism to undermine the stability of the political conditions that make accumulation possible. Basically, autonomous phenomena of the economic sphere — both crises originating in the productive or circulative parts of economy (the business cycle, realization crises, secular stagnation, etc.) or the general thrust of accumulation to expand in scale and scope — tend to generate crises in political life… I agree that there is a tendency in capitalism to generate political crises, this is important to recognize, but I would emphasize that the expression of this tendency in the neoliberal period has been qualitatively different because, unlike in previous eras, it is characterized by expropriation. Though polity in the mercantilist and industrial periods was certainly subordinate to capital, and all manner of political ruptures and transformations could occur in response to economic crises, the crises were for the political, not of the political. Fraser recognizes this but the point is stronger when we emphasize the qualitative novelty of what has been happening to our politics over the past fifty years, and describe it in terms of the long exploitation/expropriation dialectic returning to expropriation in the seventies.
The best theorization of the neoliberal expropriation of political life is undoubtedly Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos. Brown’s thesis in that book is that democracy — in idea and practice — is not just being displaced by economic life, shoved to the side and rendered powerless, but rather colonized from within. Ideas we associate with democracy are
wendy brown — economization of polity / fraser — legitimation crisis / expropriation of polity
“…vocabularies, principles of justice, political cultures, habits of citizenship, practices of rule, and above all, democratic imaginaries.” (17)
“Most striking about the new homology between city and soul is that its coordinates are economic, not political. As both individual and state become projects of management, rather than rule, as an economic framing and economic ends replace political ones, a range of concerns become subsumed to the project of capital enhancement, recede altogether, or are radically transformed as they are ‘economized.’ These include justice (and its subelements, such as liberty, equality, fairness), individual and popular sovereignty, and the rule of law. They also include the knowledge and the cultural orientation relevant to even the most modest practices of democratic citizenship.” (22)
“Human capital’s constant and ubiquitous aim, whether studying, interning, working, planning retirement, or reinventing itself in a new life, is to entrepreneurialize its endeavors, appreciate its value, and increase its rating or ranking.” (36)
Four consequences of figuring human beings as human capital through the practice of governance: (1)“human capitals do not have the standing of Kantian individuals” without rights — “the liberal social contract is turning inside out” (37–38); (2) “When we are figured as human capital in all that we do and in every venue, equality ceases to be our presumed natural relation with one another. Thus equality ceases to be an a priori or fundament of neoliberalized democracy.” (38); (3) “when everything is capital, labor disappears as a category, as does its collective form, class, taking with it the analytic basis for alienation, exploitation, and association among laborers”, which makes “illegible” the protections and benefits associated with organized labor (38); (4) citizenship loses its “political valence and venue” (39)
6. conclusion — getting to the ‘sane society’; saving the political, not just saving democracy
This main concern of this paper has been to elaborate a unitary picture of capitalism as being functionally imbricated with all these other forms of oppression — that, to me, is the metanarrative going on with all these great new marxian and critical theory interventions. The substance of my own argument here, concerning the relation of capitalism with the degradation of political life, is relatively modest and is mainly just a reframing of much more significant contributions, especially those made by Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser.
alienation as a ‘distorted mediation’
1. Capitalism / democracy
Capitalism doesn’t play nice with democracy — we’re pretty confident about that. To support that argument, we could point to the general background story: in the advanced capitalist states, there are long-term, secular declines in democratic indicators like voting turnout, popular trust in representative government, and membership in political parties and labor unions. Or we can make the case historically, pointing to countless instances where self-defined democratic movements and governments around the world have been undermined by forces acting in some way to defend capital — imperial powers, national bourgeoisies, transnational firms and governance institutions like the IMF. Movements inside the advanced capitalist states had to fight for many decades to achieve even that most limited standard of democratic participation, suffrage. And even today, suffrage is not universal, denied to non-citizens and victims of the carceral state.
Certainly, then, actually-existing capitalism hasn’t been very amenable to democracy. But, as always, it could be claimed that these outcomes are accidental or only indirectly connected to the operations of capitalism itself. This is wrong, but to show why requires a logical argument — one that could be made in many ways but which I formulate like this. First, we need to make a category distinction, between practical democracy, the democracy of real life, on one hand, and abstract democracy, the democracy of political theory, on the other. This is necessary to specify the actual substance of what democracy <is>, rather than arguing about what is ‘actual’, ‘true’, or ‘deformed’, ‘false’ democracy. At this level of abstraction, democracy is abstract, an ideal type. It means, literally, ‘demos-kratia’, the principle that the people should rule in their own name, instead of only some part of the people, or some external principle like divine will, naked power, violence, or the market. <That> is its essence — not ideas like individual freedom, equality, tolerance. All of those liberal things could theoretically be achieved under non-democratic political orders, and democracies can and have abdicated those kinds of rights. Except for certain forms of utopian democracy, the demos that rules is also necessarily bounded and particular, though open to redefinition over time. The “bare promise of bare democracy”, as Wendy Brown puts it, is simply this, and I quote: “as the only political form permitting us all to share in the the powers by which we are governed, it affords without guaranteeing the possibility that power will be wielded on behalf of the many rather than the few, that all might be regarded as ends, rather than means and that all may have a political voice.”
Is capitalism compatible with this principle? If we refer to historical capitalism, then, actually, <yes> — though the demos, the people, has never actually ruled itself in capitalism, the idea that it <should> has survived and formed the basis for much critique of.