Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

Christian Marazzi is one of the group of Italian Post-Fordist theorists along with Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and France Beradi. Capital and Language first published in Italian in 2002 is the first of Marazzi’s works to be published in English.

The starting point of the economic analysis presented by Marazzi in this text is that

Begining in the second half of the 1980’s, the prevailing analyses of the crisis of Fordism and the transition to post-Fordism were based in socio-economics, with particular attention to modifications in the nature of work and the production of goods, starting in the second half of the 1990’s the explosion of the securities market on a global scale forced everyone to update their analyses by paying more attention to the financial dimension of the paradigmatic shift. p13

The key here according to Marazzi is that whereas previously savings had been concentrated in household economies – property and goods – in the New Economy the collective savings and pension schemes of regular people became bound to the success of the global financial market, whose continuing growth their own financial future was tied to. As such, whereas within the old economy the workers saw Capital as an exterior enemy which they could organise and resist, within the New Economy the masses identify success of the financial markets with their own personal economic success.

With their savings invested in securities, workers are no longer separated from capital as they are, by virtue of its legal definition, in the salary relationship. As shareholders they are tied to the ups and downs of the markets and so they are co-interested in the “good operation” of capital in general. p37

The central thesis Marazzi presents in Capital and Language then, is that

In the Post-Fordist economy the distinction between the real economy, in which material and immaterial goods are produced and sold, and the monetary-financial economy, where the speculative dimension dominates investor decisions, must be totally reconceived… In the New Economy language and communication are structurally and contemporaneously present throughout both the sphere of the production and distribution of goods and the sphere of finance, and it is for this very reason that changes in the world of work and modification in the financial markets must be seen as two sides of the same coin. p14

Marazzi goes on to examine some of the effects of public opinion (through the lens of behavioural psychology) and confidence upon markets, and comes to the conclusion that “The theoretical analysis of financial market operations reveals the centrality of communication, of language, as a creative force.” (p27) As such, the creative and productive work done by language and communication demarcate them as no longer constituting a societal superstructure, distinct and separate from the productive sphere of material production. Key to this is the performative abilities of language, the capacity not merely to utilise language to describe actions or events, but the capacity to actively perform tasks through linguistic utterances.

Another area which Marazzi theorises, which has particular pertinence to media studies, is that of the attention economy. Quoting Davenport and Beck (2001), Marazzi states that

“In the New Economy, ‘What is scarce is human attention, the width of the telecommunications band is not a problem, the problem is the width of the human band.’ The technological revolution has certainly enlarged access to information enormously, but the limitless growth in the supply of information conflicts with a limited human demand, which is all the more limited the more work time reduce the attention time we are able to dedicate to ourselves and the people with whom we work and live.

We are in a situation of information glut, of an excess, an overload of information. The Sunday edition of the New York Times contains more information than all of the written material available to readers in the 15th Century. Back then the problem was not finding the time to read, but finding enough reading material to fill up the time. Information was a sellers’ market and books were thought to be more precious than peasants.'(p64/65)

Marazzi contends that while the growth of networked telecommunications technologies has exploded at an exponential rate since the 1980’s, meaning that for hundreds of millions of people across the world today that access to information is no longer a problem, and the traditional models based on scarcity of information are now null and void, ‘the fact is that on the demand side for goods and services, attention (and its allocation) has taken the place of the physical raw materials of the industrial economy. It is a scarce and extremely perishable good… A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’ (p66) Furthermore, Marazzi argues that many of the changes to the structure of work which have taken place in the New Economy actively contribute to this attention poverty, as the eight-hour working day is extended through for example ICT technologies which enable workers to be on call 24 hours a day, and as the Fordist notion of a stable job for life is undermined, forcing workers to devote attention time to looking for work instead of concentrating on consuming informational goods and services. This leads Marazzi to contend that

The disproportion between the supply of information and the demand for attention is a capitalistic contradiction, an internal contradiction of the value form, of its being simultaneously commodity and money, a commodity increasingly accompanied by information and money-income, distributed in such as not to increase effective demand. The financialisation of the 1990’s generated additional incomes but, beyond distributing them unequally, it created them by destroying occupational stability and salary regularity, thus helping to exacerbate the attention deficit of worker consumers by forcing them to devote more attention to the search for work than to the consumption of intangible goods and service. p141

As the current economic form of financial capitalism contributes to a poverty of attention, Marazzi contends that it is crucial to experiment with social formations which instead reduce this attention shortage, giving producer/consumers more time to both create and digest information, thereby both creating value in terms of a cultural commons, but also enhancing the general intellect. Such a notion can be understood to resemble the argument made by Hardt and Negri in Empire and Commonwealth and recently pledged on a national level in the UK by the Green Party for a universal citizen’s income.

In conclusion then, Capital and Language presents an interesting and innovative approach to understanding the main changes which society has undergone since the 1980’s from a socio-economic perspective which foregrounds the importance of language in the contemporary form of capitalism. In particular it provides thought-provoking analyses on the changes to 20th century notions of base and superstructure, on the genesis and contradictions of the attention economy, and how the financialisation of savings and pensions involves workers in the wider capitalist system to a far greater extent than previous manifestations of capitalism.

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We are constantly being reminded by environmentalists that we only have one planet on which to live, a single set of resources which are being depleted at an ever increasing rate…

But our biosphere is not a static pool of resources. The world is constantly changing. All around us life is growing, evolving, renewing itself, becoming a new world in every passing instant… The earth is a dynamic system capable of replenishing itself, as life on this planet recovered and evolved following the Permian extinction where 250 million years ago most life was wiped off the planet.

So what then is the worry over natural resource depletion? Is the logic of ecology a new conservatism aiming to ensure that the world’s poorest people remain impoverished, unable to undergo industrial development due to the alleged environmental costs and leaving the already industrialised nations in a permanent state of technological and military hegemony?

The answer is no. Resource depletion is a very real problem which human civilisation must begin to address. While the earth has the potential to recover from the ecological damage industrialization has wrought – if humanity disappeared then more oil would form, rainforests would regrow, and the unsustainable monocultures of industrial agriculture and urban development would be enveloped by sustainable and varied ecosystems – such ecological renewal would take millenia, a timescale which is of no help to those who wish to reduce human suffering here and now.

At present, humanity is using the Earth’s resources faster than they can replenish themselves. This is the definition of an unsustainable society. The consequences of such a society will be increased poverty and immiseration for many of the world’s poorest people, alongside a decline in the quality of life for many who today enjoy affluent lifestyles, as vital resources become increasingly scarce and therefore expensive if left to the market, essentially pricing the world’s poor out of life.

The current average ecological footprint of a UK citizen is 5.4 hectares of productive land. This means that if everyone were to consume as many natural resources as a Brit, then we would need over three times the resources that the Earth provides, and that would be using all of the world’s resources for humans as a baseline level, which in itself is highly dubious.

Expecting to be able to maintain such an unsustainable level of consumption is insanity. Capitalist economics are predicated on unlimited year on year growth, however the reality of our collective situation is that growth is limited and dependent on the ecological situations within which our social context is embedded. While we should unquestionably allow the poorest nations and peoples on Earth to develop and increase their standard of living, this has to be offset by first world consumers taking a cut to their material consumption.

That 20% of the world’s population currently use 80% of its resources is a telling fact which highlights the massive inequalities which exist between people. A sustainable society requires these inequalities to be phased out, so that every human has access to clean water, food, shelter and health care, while no humans hoard wealth in such a manner that either others must go without, or that future generations suffer for their greed.

Yet in the world today, as the world’s largest conventional oil fields begin to run dry and the rainforests continue to be cut down to grow meat for first world consumers, as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and the world’s poorest humans cannot afford food or water, shelter, education, health care, the zombie like acolytes of globalised capitalism continue to consume at ever greater levels.

Can we count on the structures which continue to report record profits from the current system be entrusted to revolutionize our current way of living?

Or has the time come for a more democratic, more sustainable society. Another world is possible. Let’s start building that world today.

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