Article by Mark McConaghy
I take it as axiomatic that it is impossible, in our current political moment, to think of what a world not defined by capitalism would actually look like. The problem with capitalism is not a moral but a structural one: can we ever get beyond the violence inherent in its continual oscillation between booms and busts, growth and contraction, creation and destruction?
This morning I walked from my office in Robarts Library across St.George street to the Rotman School of Business, on my way to buy a cup of coffee. As I entered the Rotman complex I was instantly surrounded by a social world that is completely different from my own: late twenty and early thirty somethings, mulling about with coffees and prep sheets in hand, surrounding by the cool glint of freshly coated glass. Rotman had recently finished a massive expansion of its headquarters, and before I knew it I was walking amidst the sharp angles and dipping curves of this oh so smooth corporate space. These young men and women were everywhere, huddled together in circles, laid out on couches, bunched together over work sheets.
The students had the lean, hungry look of success in their eyes. While they were clearly trepidatious over upcoming exams, exhausted after much bleary-eyed study, there was a happy glint in their eyes: the semester would soon be over. They were one more step away from joining the corporate class of well-paid, sleek urbanites they so longed to become. They joked about how hard the tests were, how long they had studied cash flow analysis and derivative evaluations. You could sense the nervous ambition throughout the room: which one of their fellow classmates would become Canada’s next star private equity trader? Who could one afford to alienate and who must one keep false pretense with?
Their tremulous smiles, the anxious white of their fingers as they gripped their coffee mugs, the jittery glow in their eyes…all of this bespoke their confidence in the assured nature of their own success in the world.
They, too, would soon be getting theirs. They had all chosen correctly: finance would bring them money, social clout, the house and the kids. It would provide them security in a world in which no other class of people, be it in Euro-America or abroad, has access to much of any of it. The sense was upon them of living in a world which clocked faster, moved quicker, and was far more rewarding than anything else you could do, because it paid more, and thus met the highest and really the only standard of value Canadian society has: do you have enough money to have a happy, engaged, fully human life?
This was not a world in which I was at home. How different it was from the stuffed cloister of my carrel in Robarts library, full of books about China, literature, cultural transformation, revolution, aesthetics…all of them referencing events that seem momentous, but also momentously impossible from today’s perspective. I am surrounded by books that analyze and portray revolution, and yet it is nothing but an object of academic study, an object of disengaged inquiry, something to be put under our methodological microscope, appreciated and then moved on from, safe in the belief that our society is functional, progressive, incrementally getting better and better. The more we study something, academically, the more incapable we are of producing it in the real social world outside the library.
While the world of the carrel is characterized by a wondrously sophisticated remove, the world of Rotman is defined by a callous confidence as cool as the fine-edged glass the school is encased in.
As I walked through that building, I couldn’t help but remember Ben Stiller’s burned out 40-something character in Greenberg when he looks out at a set of confident partygoers in their early twenties: he tells them that their generation is different from his. Their generation, he warns them, is mean. The scene is a classic, for the tart sadness with which Stiller delivers the line conveys to us a distinct impression of just what he means by that word “mean”. A palpable coolness; the Darwinian striving for personal gain above public responsibility; that zealous ambition to become a part of the one class that is truly above it all, masters of commerce, university boards, charities, political campaigns (and via these, government bodies). It is the drive, so central to the logic of capitalism, to look out first and foremost for yourself, to configure your identity via your financial capacities in relation to others, and to sacrifice every other part of your personality or ambition in order to secure that treasured place as one of the truly successful in life.
Simply put, there was a meanness behind the eyes of all those students this morning. A meanness that comes not from something innately within them, but from the social system which produced them and the class identity they represent. They had made the best decision they could: they would become the managers of capital. Job creators, in the parlance of the American Republican party. At all costs, they would succeed for themselves. The commons, the community, the people…these were secondary considerations to these young spartans, so assured in their discussions of financial instruments and job placements.
It is the logic of individual malice that defines our society: a violence has already been done to me by forcing me into brutal competition with others, so I cannot but look out for myself as I make my way through this world. That was on full display behind the mock exhaustion and false smiles in the Rotman building this morning.
And what about the rest of us, those who work across the street, in our shuttered offices in our decaying library, surrounding by the after-images of revolution and protest, studying History instead of enacting it? How do we combat the impotence that the smooth glass and glinting smiles of Rotman MBA graduates instill in us?
Ironically, our library, cultural programs, classrooms, and schools are dependent on the revenue that the managers of capital create. For our government uses tax revenue to fund the public systems of common good that have defined this country for generations. And yet that tax revenue is only as plentiful as the underlying economy it is based upon, an economy which arrays itself around a series of corporations who battle for market supremacy, managed by the titans of industry those young Rotman members so desperately want to become. If the health of any government is based on that of the economy, and if the economy is controlled by corporate power, than the result is simple for anyone to see: it is corporate power that is the economic bedrock behind government power, not the other way around.
And in our time of austerity since 2008 we have seen first hand how dependent government is on corporate power. That government programs disproportionately help the middle class- those of us who work in schools, libraries, fire stations, police headquarters, car plants, and hospitals- goes without saying. Thus, a crisis in corporate power precipitates a crisis in governmental finance which precipitates a cut to services that are crucial to the quality of life of the middle and working classes. The corporate classes, precisely because of their financial and social power, manage to come through the recessions relatively unscathed. They have been making the vast share of the social wealth in any case, and should be more than able to weather a drop in economic productivity. We can’t say the same for government programs that help the neediest of people- they get cut when times are bad.
And thus we realize that our tiny little carrel surrounded by our precious books, our nascent programs dedicated to the promotion of literature, the theorization of history, the contemplation of philosophical problems, our hospitals that save our lives when we need them, and our schools that educate our children for free…all of this is based upon an economic system we do not manage, defined by corporations who work in their own private interests, and who throw us the scraps of their earnings via the system of taxation, through which we try to build the best society we can.
Simply put, it is the cold-clint of Rotman that enables the cozy warmth of disinterested reading in the library across the street. It is not just MBA grads, but we ourselves, who are implicated in the culture of individual malice which capitalism has produced. This is precisely what we mean when we say there is no outside of capitalism: because even those imminently socialist institutions that do so much good in our society (the hospital, the school, the library) is dependent on capital for their continued funding, via the indirect mechanism of the welfare state and its tax policies. No Rotman- that is, no private entity producing social wealth within the market economy- than no Robarts either.
To realize what Robarts and Rotman have in common is important but also crushing, for it leads to an overwhelming sense of impotence. The graduates of Rotman’s MBA program have made the wisest choice they can: in a society of intense personal competition, where your ability to buy a house, to send your kids to a good school, to enjoy your leisure time in safety and comfort, where your very ability to be human in the fullest possible sense of the word, is based on how much money you have, to ensure you have a lot of it by entering into the organs of capital (the investment banks, consulting houses, and law firms) is truly the wisest way to play the game.
And so it seems that the world we have in front of us is based on a fundamental gap: a split between those who join corporate power, those who link themselves with the organizations who own the means of production, and the rest of us, those of us who were too poor to attend a place like Rotman, those who did not grow up within calm, nurturing schools, those who were not blessed with role models, those who had the stupid idea of working for something larger than themselves in the fields of art, writing, medicine, teaching, language, and science, those who could not find the meanness of spirit that you need to become one of the young firebrands of the corporate world.
And the surest way of analyzing this split is to look at real estate prices, in which class difference is translated instantly into numeric value spread across geographical space. Who doesn’t love the playful, resonant sophistication of Queen Street West or the elegant avenues of the Annex? Who wouldn’t want to live on a street lined by aged elms and classic victorians in the heart of downtown Toronto? But to become a part of the great center of culture, art, and industry that is this city, you better pay up: 2 million for a house in the Annex and counting. 1.3 for a house on Queen West. The numbers don’t get any lighter until you reach the stripped-mall, concrete-towered outposts of Scarborough or Markham. It is the leisured sophisticates of the corporate class who enjoy Toronto’s art galleries, cafes, and bookstores as stone throw spaces from their homes.
As for the rest of us? We commute.
There are, to be sure, other sources of difference in our society than just class: different races, genders, languages, and cultures permeate our mosaic. And yet all of these differences are accommodated by the economic system which is the very ground of social life itself. Amongst those young recruits at Rotman this morning were Asian, Indian, Black, and White men and women. Despite their obvious social and cultural differences, what linked all of them was their mutual desire to join Bay Street and the ranks of young capital controlling entrepreneurs. It was their class-desire that was the basis of their commonality, a universal identity that transcended whatever particular differences they possessed because of the color of their skin, the sex of their bodies, or the location of their births. It is once again in this sense that we say: above and beyond whatever particular cultural identity you wish to subscribe to, which is ultimately just a historical accident of your birth, the real struggle, the real commonality, that transcends all of our individual identities is the brute rationality of market division.
You want your kids to go to a good school, you better be able to afford a north Toronto neighborhood. You want to retire early to have the leisure time to write your literary masterpiece, you better have the money to support yourself while doing it. It is the brute economic reality of capitalist life that is the only universal that we can all share in. Who doesn’t fear going on the market to find a job, or to lose their job and have to find another? Worse yet, who doesn’t fear of falling out of the job market all-together, to fall from the graces of employed respectability? Where would this fall end? When we join the ranks of those homeless people shaking their cups in petty obeisance as we march right by them, too ashamed to look at the human waste our society has left for us to witness?
Why do we look away? What is the source of our collective shame in recognizing the inequalities our social body has within it?
And so the moment we start critically analyzing our world, the moment it turns back to us and says: you can combat racism, you can change peoples attitudes about giving gay people the right to marry, you can promote more tolerance of cultural difference, but what you cannot do is change the basic class relations that our society is built upon: there are Rotman grads and there are Robarts workers. There are the managers of capital, those who have linked themselves with corporate power; next, there is the government that is dependent upon them for tax revenue; and then finally there is us who are dependent upon that government for the schools, the roads, the hospitals, and the libraries that we use to sustain our basic existence on this earth.
It seems that economic power, and thus social and political hegemony, will always be arrayed in this uneven way. In a more traditional language, one would call this the split between those who own the means of production (owners of companies, landlords, large institutional shareholders) and those who do not, who simply sell their labor power: the rest of us.
Of course, those who sell their labor power to do so both inside and outside of corporate institutions. It is simply that corporate jobs pay comparatively better. This fact allows those MBA grads to gain an economic foothold in the world that those outside those institutions can only ever dream of. That the MBA grads will be equally as exploited for their labor- that they will be ground into numbness by 16 hour days in which the firm makes thousands of dollars an hour off their labor while they are paid a fraction of that sum- is an irony that should promote solidarity between the middle and upper classes. Investment banks and consulting firms are sweatshops too, in their own particular ways. Unfortunately, this fact does not promote class solidarity, because corporate laborers are paid too well for them to identify with us lowly teachers, us dirty-handed auto plant workers, us acne-faced youth who rip the tickets for them as they go into their Friday night movies while we scrimp just enough to make a short film of our own.
The point is this: we live in a world in which it seems that the economic logic of capitalism is stronger than ever. Movements for identity rights (gay marriage, multi-cultural inclusion) succeed precisely because they don’t ask for any fundamental change in the market relations that define our society. They simply ask for more visibility, more inclusion, within the market and its juridical structure for previously alienated groups. This, of course, is historical progress, but what precisely seems to be immovable, what seems to be the true constant constant, what has only strengthened itself over the last 30 years is capitalism as a global system of economic production and exchange. We live in a world in which racial, cultural, and sexual identities flourish in wonderfully free ways, and yet they remain unfree in precisely this one way: they all must obey the laws of supply and demand, wage labor, and class division that capitalist life imposes.
Free to be who we are, unless that being disrupts profit margins within the marketplace, in which case the system will come after you directly. This is, of course, the reason that while identity politics have flourished over the last 30 years, organized labor in all industries has been attacked repeatedly by both the state and private sectors. What little is left of organized labor is dying a slow death as jobs are shipped to where, predictably enough, the labor is cheaper. And thus the middle-class fears “the rise” of China, in which every conceivable commodity can be produced more quickly and more cheaply than anything a union-locked, multi-party democracy like ours could accomplish.
I take it as axiomatic that it is impossible, in our current political moment, to think of what a world not defined by capitalism would actually look like. For the more our capacities of communication and exchange expand, the more traditional concepts of space and time are rendered meaningless via digital technology, the more globalized the very fabric of our everyday life becomes….the more things stay the same, for the fundamental nature of who owns the means of production and who labors, the fundamental inequality in wealth and ownership, has scarcely been addressed.
And what about social democracy? Liberalism? Leftist-politics? The good old-fashioned concept of socialism itself? Know this: all our beloved institutions- the library, the hospital, the school house, the bookstore- are ultimately dependent on the health of our capitalist economies. As Zizek reminds us, socialism requires capitalism, it is intertwined with it, it has made its compromise with it, just as we in Robarts need the pity and the good graces, the tax dollars and the charitable donations, of those in Rotman to operate. Social democracy as a mechanism of addressing the inequalities of capitalism will always be, in the last instant, tied to the whims of the economic life cycle of the market. In times of boom, line up for your library investments and new subway lines; in times of bursting bubbles, expect austerity cuts to your schools, hospitals, and police services. The social welfare of all of us is thus dependent on the welfare of the economy as a whole, an economy controlled by corporate power and its private interests.
A contradiction, then, at the heart of socialism itself: private corporate interests have to somehow be marshaled to address public good, despite their overriding concern to address their own profit margins first and foremost.
Is this logical contradiction really the founding base that we want to build our societies around? If so, we will be plagued by the outward signs of the contradiction- the eternal oscillating between booms and busts- forever, as we have been since the 19th century advent of capitalism itself.
So the only fundamental question is the following: is this economic system, which I take as the grounding base and untranscendable horizon of our social and cultural life, the system we want to organize our society around? If we are happy with this society, despite the inequality that is structurally programmed into it, despite the tendency of capital to boom and bust, to produce immense wealth and distribute it unevenly…if we are happy with this system, in full knowledge of its structural problems and inadequacies, than our task becomes much simpler.
Indeed, in that case we might as well all just go home and leave things to our current politicians and civic leaders. For the task of political thought becomes nothing but a question of reformism. How do we make the system better? How do we ensure that when markets go bust and the social safety net is eroded, we can prevent too many people from encountering too much harm? How can we have a better, safer, more humane capitalist world?
But what if we reject the structure entirely, not for petty reasons of resentment (rich people have more stuff than us…hardly to be pitied) but for structural reasons: this system, according to its own operations, cannot provide society conceived of as a democratic whole with what it needs to survive and prosper…what then?
What would we do? How could we describe, imagine, and bring into being a radically different world? A world defined by a different set of structural relations than the capitalist ones we have had for the better part of roughly two centuries?
We should remember that for all the wealth and technological progress capitalism has generated, it has still been unable to eliminate poverty, inequality, social resentment, malicious individualism, war, ecological violence, and a sense of disempowerment at the level of the individual.
What if the task of the 21st century were to imagine a world which built on the good things capitalism has given us- a high generation of wealth (although distributed in brutally uneven ways on both national and, more pressingly, global scales), technological efficiencies, some drive for individual entrepreneurship- while at the same time imagining a social system that was divested of capitalism’s inequalities, crises, and structural inefficiencies?
How could we imagine such a world? By what media, language, and social practices would we begin to live in this different way?
That is what this website is about. It is about thinking and doing the impossible. It will be dedicated to answering the most fundamental political, social, and economic questions of our time. And those questions all ultimately boil down to the following:
Is the capitalist mode of production, and the state-structures of liberal welfare that have emerged around it, the system of economic and political life that we want to build our society around? If so, why?
If, in the last analysis, we claim that capitalism is structurally incapable of building a truly human society for all (and not just for Rotman graduates and their bosses), if we can make a structural (rather than a moral) argument against capitalism that is persuasive, than the question becomes: what alternative system would allow people more happiness and less suffering in their daily lives? Who would own the means of production in such a system? How would we adjudicate relations between social beings? And how do we get from our current moment of late-capitalist crisis to that new, undefined, scarcely imaginable world?
That is the task of this blog. To have a sober assessment of our current social system, and determine whether or not it needs to be replaced by another one. We will proceed slowly, step by step, with a critical analysis of our contemporary moment, its economic relations, and its cultural manifestations. We will do so from a variety of perspectives, which could include something as simple as our thoughts on a movie or as complex as our analysis of what happened in the 2008 sub-prime crisis.
As we conduct this analysis, we will always ask ourselves: does this society allow us, structurally, to be kind, friendly, and non-violent to others?
Everything is open to question in the space of this website, including its own operative assumptions. We will ask the most fundamental questions we possibly can, all of them designed to help us decide: what needs to be done? What is the task of this moment?
Crucially, this website is designed to give us a voice. A voice to experiment. A voice to speak out about the fundamental questions that define our lives, our societies, and our daily experience. We will accept no muting of our voice.
A reader at this point might ask: isn’t this what academia is designed to do? Don’t we have enough cultural and political journals already, written by professionalized experts in a variety of sophisticated subfields? And to that we must answer: how has the academy done in the last 30 years in terms of shaping the society around it? Has it become an influential force to be reckoned with in the public sphere, a leader in mobilization and democratization for all people within society? Has it set the tone for public debate? Or has it become a muted observer on the sidelines of social struggle, constantly talking and studying the social in ever more refined ways, and never actually acting deeply within it so as to fundamentally transform it?
It is not, of course, that the academy is a bad place: it is a sign of our historical progress that we have an institution where we can debate, at a remove from the white heat of party politics and street protests, the finer points about aesthetics, science, the economy, and any other topic we like. It is simply that academia has failed utterly in the last 30 years to connect to an audience greater than its own community of experts and their graduate student pupils. Why have so many brilliant people, with decades of education behind them and the world’s greatest libraries at their fingertips, not launched movements that have fundamentally altered the nature of the state and the society they are enmeshed within? Why have they ceded that job to “politicians” and the corporate power bases that support their campaigns? As readers of this blog will find out, the authors all come from the academic sphere in some way, and we owe much to such an institution for support, resources, and friendship. And yet my worry is this: if we cannot make ourselves intelligible to the auto-worker clinging onto his factory floor job in Oshawa or the single mother serving coffee at Tim Hortons, have we really done our job as society’s educated leaders? The problem lies not in the single mother or the auto worker, but in the historian, the philosopher, and the scientist who cannot communicate with them.
The academy must learn to become porous, open, engaged, and political in the most populist and creative sense of the word. There is no such thing as disinterested inquiry, and that illusion of sophisticated remove is as dangerous as the false optimism academics always accuse “activists” of fostering. For the vacated space of the social that the academy has failed to occupy becomes filled up with genuinely populist movements, but of a most reactionary kind. Therein lies the brilliant success of movements such as the one represented by the Conservative Party of Canada: they are sophisticated because they are populist, for the most difficult thing in the world, the one that requires all of our diligent study and commendation, is to reach people and change the way they think and act. The conservatives are succeeding at precisely that task while the Left has failed, and this should be an issue of urgent study for us. Mass outreach is sophisticated political work, while academic sophistication is so often just pedantry disguised with fine language.
The academy simply cannot cede the ground of public debate to news organizations, think tanks, marketing firms,government agencies, and corporate power. Political work is hard, particularly when you are under pressure to publish for tenure, but it must be done. To retreat into ourselves, away from where real power lies- in the state and the corporations it is dependent upon- is to complacently give up the fight before it even begins.
All writing- even the most erudite article on a 15th century Ming poem or the most arcane point concerning cellular biology- must contribute to building a better world: that is the standard by which all work, academic or otherwise, is to be judged.
And so this is our space of expression. We are not worried about pleasing everyone, about possessing the air of the refined expert, about making sure our arguments are one hundred percent smooth, expertly reasoned, without any lapse of logic or emotion…our writing is not about elitist perfection. It has a far more important and urgent goal to attend to: the transformation of our world towards a fundamentally better future.
Our writings will be messy; they will be explorative; they are always and already works in progress; they will be thinking in action and action in thought, a form of dedicated praxis, in movement; they do not have time to be so refined, so gentle, so smart, so removed as the prose of a textbook or a journal article.
This is about answering the most fundamental questions facing our collective existence today. It is about finding what we love and care for so as to protect it in our world. The academics will study this movement after the fact, as they always do. But you can’t summon up change, passion, revolution out of history, retrospectively, and demand people magically embrace it. You can only summon up collective will by abandoning the ivory tower, by digging into people’s lives, by communicating with interest and humility, and by finding out for ourselves what needs to be done. Academics are encouraged to contribute to this blog, but they must do so having unlearnt their institutional instincts, writing with the hearts of the inquisitive, humble children they once were.
And finally, this is about making some kind of contribution to History. For it is those Rotman grads and the banks, oil companies, hedge funds, law firms, and digital conglomerates they will be working for that ultimately have power over the fundamental economic coordinates of our lives. The forces of History are with the owners of capital and, to a lesser degree, the state power designed to oversee them. Us, the lowly watchers on the street, the indebted students weighted down by our failed dreams and useless degrees, the struggling waiter serving the bourgeoise their food at the newest chic bistro…what can we do to change History? What power do we have, removed from Bay Street, from Ottawa, from the courts, from the backrooms and boardrooms where deals are made that affect resources and assets that all of us need to survive?
Should we stop our complaining and just join a political party, you say? It costs 400 dollars to go the Liberal Party of Canada’s biannual convention, where you can hobnob with politicians and get lucky enough for one of them to notice you and invite you into the corridors of power. You want to join a political party, fine, but be prepared to pay for the privilege, and good luck having your voice heard to affect policy. Nepotism, family connections, school prestige, and elite networks make political parties as foreboding and impersonal, as disconnected from our pains and our sorrows, as any other corporation. The quiet modesty of the introvert, the humble sensitivity of the caring one, seems to have no place in the impersonal machinery of party politics.
So what, I ask you, do we have? How do we avoid feeling impotent in our quest to change the iron-clad economic and social realities around us?
We have this space. We have nothing but these words. Nothing but our ability to think critically. Nothing but this means of communication, this impoverished writing, in the here and now, not knowing if anyone will listen or read or care.
But we must try. We must do something to contribute to History, for we cannot let the corporate bosses and their MBA soldiers and the governments they routinely talk down to control the future. We must say no to the glinting meanness behind the glass. For that will be a future in which the private interests of a few will take precedence over the public interests of us all. It will be, structurally, no future at all, but more of the same violence, class privilege, and social inequality we have known from the beginning.
So we struggle to find agency; to find some alternative to the menace, to the fundamental meanness, of the world of power across the street at Rotman, armed with nothing but these words. Armed with nothing but this space, this website, our sanctuary and our base of action, where we will launch our movement to change History for the better.
It is, in the end, an attempt at creating a world none of us has ever known. That, and only that, is the standard by which all of our actions and thoughts will be judged. In the end.
In the end.
Toronto, Ontario, February 18, 2013
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.