The Antinomies of Neoliberal Capitalist Reason

By Jordanco Jovanoski


In his early writings, Karl Marx argued that liberal philosophy is an epiphenomenal consequence, an outgrowth of the way in which social life exists. The emancipatory potential of such a position, which is the position of the neo-liberal/capitalist Left today, is deeply problematic: on the one hand, it opts for no radical demand of a “new system,” it is a position which does not seek to posit the real possibility of some alternative organization of society which has done away with the logic of accumulation as the axis upon which it turns, as its basic organizing principle, for the reason that in such a demand, it sees a deep sense of a utopian impossibility. On the other hand, it opts for a radical emancipatory demand within the limits of capitalism — a demand, which if realized, would do away with the cleavages that plague liberal capitalist society. The demand however, is such that it calls for progress in society without the systematic consequences of progress. In view of this it is equally as important to reveal the utopian impossibility of the demand itself operating within the neoliberal idea of progress in the non-systematic sense. The utopian elements which are in question here are those which are interpellated in the prospect of a happy marriage between emancipation as such and the “eternal” sustainability of the capitalist logic of accumulation. In other words, one could make the claim, that while it may be utopian to argue for a prospect of radical emancipation as poised against neoliberal capitalism and its ultimate overcoming, it may be just as utopian to argue for a prospect of radical emancipation that is in concert with the infinite sustainability of neoliberal capitalism as we know it today.

As Eli Zaretsky correctly reminds us in Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life, capitalism is an integrated system. Organization of production is predicated on certain forms of individual existence: the conceptions of “personal life” and “family” which are today appropriated and interpellated by the ruling ideology are deeply and structurally connected with the process of capitalism. Insofar as “we can simultaneously view it as part of the economy,” Zaretsky argues, “a step can be taken toward understanding the connection between our inner emotional lives and capitalist development.”1 The key to particularity for Zaretsky lies in understanding the totality, the way in which certain forms of family life function as oppressive, depends on the way in which production is organized. Capitalist relations of production organize the family and the economy in separate realms. In attempting to harmonize family life with the economy — capitalism creates a need which it cannot satisfy. The point of implication in Zaretsky’s text is that the multiplicity of ruptures, antagonisms, and gaps which explode under relations of capital are direct results of its organizational principle (of relations of labor, constant accumulation etc.) and one cannot take these separations at face value — they are not only historical culminations of capital, but also inherent as a determinate logic of the system.

In the view of Immanuel Wallerstein, the radical instability which is evident in the capitalist system is evident not because the system functions improperly — rather, it is precisely because the system functions properly. Instability belongs to the systematic core of capitalism; it is its “sine qua non.” “One must remember,” Wallerstein says in World-Systems Analysis, that “bankruptcy, or absorption by a more powerful firm, is the daily bread of capitalist enterprises. Not all capitalist entrepreneurs succeed in accumulating capital. Far from it. If they all succeeded, each would be likely to obtain very little capital. So, the repeated failures of firms not only weed out the weak competitors but are a condition sine qua non of the endless accumulation of capital.”2 Thus it is in the nature of capital to essentially eat its own.

If, then, one takes seriously the question of the neoliberal critique of capital, together with its demand that the tensions of injustice and crises are more or less resolved within the system itself, there is a deep sense in which the demands are themselves neither achievable nor sustainable vis-à-vis the fundamental systematic logic. Or in other words, a deeply problematic antinomy emerges, which aims at a resolution of the problems which emerge as result of capital by capital itself. This demand contains an element which is both paradoxical and utopian in nature.

In their book, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello articulate a series of impossible tasks that capitalism rendered ostensibly possible from the standpoint of the neoliberal frame. For Boltanski and Chiapello, each historical moment of crisis beckons capitalism to find a “new spirit,” a new constellation of meaning that will re-connect, re-bind, and re-appropriate the disenchantments which it inherently generates back to itself. In their eyes, today’s “spirit of capitalism” provides, paradoxically, its own alternative to itself. The meaninglessness which is generated by the ruthless process of perpetual accumulation of surplus value is answered by a new meaning, a new spirit (of capital itself) which operates as a legitimation of capital by way of critique. Neoliberal capital is thus self-critical capital, and the aim of this paper is very much in the “spirit” of Boltanski and Chiapello: a) it seeks to render visible and problematize the trajectory of the neoliberal/capitalist critique of capitalism; and b) it seeks to show that the radical egalitarian possibilities within capitalism are just as, if not more, utopian than the radical sketches for a new logic of collective organization that is not made in the image of the commodity form.

Liberal Capitalism, Immanence and Contingency

What does it mean to think within the coordinates of capitalism today in a way that it is beyond them? Thinking beyond the limits of capital from the position of capital is a claim for immanence. The new arises from the old. The denial of a radical break from the old in virtue of something unconditionally external positing itself as “new” is a denial of the transcendent and purely noumenal; a denial of what Kant would call “heteronomy” in favor of “autonomy.”3

The way in which this [pseudo] Kantian/Hegelian logic has been appropriated by today’s neoliberal capitalism is again problematic at best. The usual argument in its theoretical form is the following: to say that capitalism is a process of immanence is to say that it is a self-corrective, self-critical, historical process. One of its fundamental constitutive elements is its recognitive trajectory, i.e., its ability to dynamically recognize its own contradictions and resolve them within its own coordinates. In this way, “the system” of capital is an immanent system, insofar as it does not require a rupture, a break with its own logic — only perpetual self-correction and self-criticism. However, the problem with this logic could be formulated in the following question: what is really “new” in the “new” offered by capitalism?

To what extent are we prepared to say that capitalism produces something intrinsically new, something which does not yet exist in the order of being? The logic of immanence, when taken to its full implications, constitutes an opening to an infinite possibility, or rather, to a possibility that is beyond the capacity of its origin — it is not merely a rejection of transcendent authority. Hegel’s own concept of infinitude is entirely immanent. For Hegel, the infinite does not exist beyond that which is finite but only within that which is finite.4 One may then ask: why is a proper notion of immanence necessary? If liberal capitalism merely holds an insufficient theoretical notion of immanence, how does such an insufficiency affect the way in which immanence functions, as such?

Here one could make an argument for the crucial significance of a proper [Hegelian] notion of contingency. The way in which immanence functions is entirely contingent on the way in which it is conceptualized. If we follow the logic of immanence, all the way down, we see that things in the world remain radically contingent. Following closely the implications from immanence, one arrives ultimately not at radical necessity, but at radical contingency: there is no truth which is “out there,” only a multitude of struggles in the realm of ideas and the realm of actions. Conditions become necessary only retroactively, i.e. only after their contingency has been determined one way or the other. Thus, there is a deep sense in which one is able to identify a struggle of inclusion/exclusion primarily at the level of concepts. In liberal/capitalist thought, what remains excluded from the concept of immanence is precisely this opening-up to a non-capitalist infinitude; an opening-up to non-being vis-à-vis capital, to that which is not (to a universality other than the commodity form). Hence in going back to the question of the new in capitalism, we could say that if one excludes the possibility of an infinitude other than that of the “old” (that of capital) from the concept of immanence, then one is also excluding the immanent conditions for the possibility of what is radically other than capitalism.

Structure and Anti-Structure

The neoliberal position is certainly not the only thing which stands in need of an immanent critique today — the position of the social-democratic (and socialist) left, which has today practically merged with the neoliberal left, thus creating a situation of absence of any radical politics, has also been very difficult to sustain, and precisely because of their (paradoxical) acceptance and denial of the fundamental capitalistic teleology: the infinite accumulation of profit. The social-democratic left immediately find themselves thrown into a deadlock when they demand that capitalism subordinates itself to the uses and needs of society. What they are effectively demanding is for capital to remain capital and at the same time become operative against its own logic. On one level, socialists and social-democrats hold the position that a self-adjusting market left to its own devices benefitting society implies a stark utopia. As the argument goes, institutionalization of the market form has inverted the relation between society and economy — and what we have now are the results of what Karl Polanyi called a “great transformation,” where society has become subordinated to the logic of the market:

Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system. The vital importance of the economic factor to the existence of society precludes any other result. For once the economic system is organized in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws.5

It is astonishing to see how socialists and social-democrats today (effectively) read these lines in Polanyi. The main lesson which they are able to draw from Polanyi’s argument is one of restriction. Their main argument is that in order for society to function properly, in order for the relation between economy and society to be re-inscribed into its proper frame, the excesses of the market need to be prohibited and restrained by institutions that are capable of functioning against the background of a capitalistic cluster of organizing principles. A transformation of those very principles which organize capitalism as such is nowhere to be found in their position. They merely offer a reactive argument against capital; indeed, an argument that is not inherently different than that of the more “enlightened” liberals. The social-democratic position is (at its best) attacking and caressing capitalism. It is not that socialists and social-democrats do not see the crisis as occurring on the level of structure — this is precisely where they locate the problem, but they are merely offering counter-structure, or anti-structure. Hence, instead of negating the inversion between economy and society, their argument imagines a society dichotomized into a “disembedded” structure of exploitation and an “embedded” structure which only reacts to it. The inversion remains the same, the only difference being that a protective wall has been placed between the two structural terms.

Utopia (or After Capitalism, Capitalism!)

But why is such a demand against capital necessary? Why does it have to become what it is not? It is completely feasible that one can opt for capitalism at its most ruthless and social justice at its most emancipatory. Here we are faced with an even more fundamental deadlock, one which lies at the center of the antinomy of liberal capitalism itself. One would be even tempted to say that: if the socialist left’s demand was paradoxical, then the liberal left’s demand is impossible. How do we critically approach the problem of utopia? When one speaks critically of utopian constructs, how does one approach: a) the possible limits of capitalist logic based on the omnipotence of what Georg Simmel called the “money form” as universal omnipresent principle and (in a way) a key to the capitalist totality; and b) the prospect of a gesture which goes beyond the limits of the money form, beyond that very principle of universal social organization? The critical gesture made against a utopian demand is the positing of impossibility against a utopian possibility, meaning either: a) impossible to be achieved or b) impossible to be sustained.

The liberal critique against the call for communist utopia was (and still is) that the demand was impossible to be sustained. The argument is mainly an empirical one: once relations of production were captured by the forces of production themselves, (the workers) history has shown us that the system which replaced capitalism degenerated into utter failure when it became confronted with the basic utilitarian needs of society, to the effect that it had to rely on a capitalist structure which functioned implicitly as the underside of the official communist ideology. As the argument goes, communistic theory was a fantasy, empirically unsustainable as practice. From the view of the liberal/capitalist critique, it is unsustainable to have the forces of production in control of the means of production for the simple reason that it has been hitherto historically shown to be thus. Regimes where the theory appeared at least partially sustainable (like the former Yugoslavia) were seen as hinging on capitalist economies. After all, Yugoslavia had to borrow heavily from the West in order to sustain well-paying jobs, good infrastructure, free health care, free higher education, etc. The point here is not to dispute or disprove the liberal/capitalist critique of communist utopia — indeed, the critique is very powerful and, for that matter, absolutely true and to the point — the point is, rather, to take that same critique (the same underlying logic) and turn it against what may be called the liberal capitalist utopia.

But what is the liberal capitalist utopia? Before going into the argument of why liberal capitalism is itself a utopian construct, it is important to turn again to Boltanski and Chiapello, who begin with a critique of the concept of ideology and the way in which it is mainly used today, while being in favor of a concept of ideology which is grounded in the everyday particularity of the ways in which we are addressed as subjects: “We stipulate that the term ‘ideology’ is to be construed here not in the reductionist sense to which it has often been reduced in the Marxist vulgate” they argue, “but as…a set of shared beliefs, inscribed in institutions, bound up with actions, and hence anchored in reality.”6 On this account, ideology becomes a fundamental concept for Boltanski and Chiapello; it becomes the concept which inherently links capitalism and its justification. Insofar as ideology is seen as that concept which acts as mediator between the subjectivity of the subject and the objective conditions in society under capital, it provides the key to what Boltanski and Chiapello call a “spirit of capitalism”. This spirit is “precisely the set of beliefs associated with the capitalist order that helps to justify [that] order and, by legitimizing them, to sustain the forms of action and predispositions compatible with it.”7 This is where Boltanski and Chiapello locate the fundamental ideological utility of the “spirit of capitalism”: its main function is to provide appropriate meaning in a situation of despair, of meaninglessness. The aim of capital is the reproduction of the social order in conditions where the same order is also reprehensible. The “spirit of capitalism” is thus that which transforms the unendurable into durable — however, it is crucial to point out that the transformative operation occurs mainly on the ideological level, and not on the level of objective conditions.

One way to articulate the situation of today is to say that, from the viewpoint of a totality, the “spirit” of liberal capitalism is sustaining the antagonism which exists between the two levels; between the ideological messages about objective conditions on the one hand and the objective conditions themselves on the other hand. In this view, “the spirit” of liberal capitalism provides the mystification, the meaning which is necessary for the continuation of the functioning of the antagonism as such. We may then ask: what is the situation which is obfuscated by capitalism today? One way to approach this question would be to make a theoretical distinction between two forms of the situation: a) the situation as it is interpellated ideologically, in its mystified form; and b) what the “truth” of the situation is behind the mystification, behind the mask as it were. It is important to note that the distinction between the two terms (a and b) is only a distinction, and not a transcendental dichotomy.

As such, the duality is posited immanently and dialectically, which means that neither term can be ultimately reduced to the other. Thetruthof the second term (b) can only be reached via the first term (a). The ultimate horizon of reducibility in the relation between the two is the relation itself. An analogy with psychoanalysis is worth mentioning here, where we have a) a manifest image; and b) a latent image of a dream. The “truth” of the interpretation is always to be found in the latent image, but it is nonetheless a “truth” which can be reached only through the material given in the manifest image.

The Two Sides of the Capitalist Situation

In light of this distinction between ideological meaning and the truth of what is behind it, what do we see as the specific content of the two forms of the situation? First, in relation to the ideological interpellation, we are presented with a picture of a world where, as Boltanski and Chiapello demonstrate, liberal capitalism is not only capable of generating its own critique, but is also able to coexist in harmony with its own critique. From the position of ideology, critique acts as the “mainspring”8 of today’s spirit of capitalism: the constant accumulation of profit is inherently linked with the liberal notions of individual freedom and democracy. But how can these concepts go hand in hand with what capital is at its most elementary? After all, Marx’s deep insight into the ‘nature’ of capital revealed the internal antagonism in the political, social, and economic dimensions of society under its conditions. Capital was thus revealed as a process, which, in order to properly function, it had to hinge on exploitation. As Marx says in the opening paragraphs of the Communist Manifesto, “The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.”9

Rigidity and Flexibility

Boltanski and Chiapello propose two basic concepts which liberal capitalism has utilized for it in a crucial way; namely, the concepts of network and project. The story behind these two concepts dates back to the events of 1968, when capitalism was going through what Habermas has called a “legitimation crisis”. The articulation of the two concepts and their newly found utility was mainly due to capital’s adaptive reaction to the growing disenchantment of the populace with its formal rigidity, in which “the wage-earning class [is firmly situated] within a hierarchical body whose rungs one climbs, where one spends one’s whole career, and where professional activity is clearly separated from the private sphere, as in an industrial world.”10 The brilliance of capital’s reaction to the critique posited by the movements of ’68 was in isolating and appropriating the demands that were compatible with its basic mechanisms and neutralizing the demands that remained antagonistic. The terms network and project were mobilized precisely for that very purpose.

“The term ‘network,’” as Boltanski and Chiapello suggest, is “the term most frequently used to connect up elements that are in fact highly disparate.” Its conscription in the service of capital has become possible on account of its “minimally hierarchical” structure which ensured for capital the demand of flexibility.11 The term ‘project’ is described as the “occasion and reason for the connection”, which “temporarily assembles a very disparate group of people…in a world which is purely connectionist.” The project “is precisely a mass of active connections apt to create forms — that is to say, bring objects and subjects into existence — by stabilizing certain connections and making them irreversible.”12 The anti-hierarchical structure of networks in concert with the formalizing tendency of projects endow liberal capitalism with the ability to do away with a pre-structured filed of activity —but in such a paradoxical way, that the inherent objective mechanisms of capital which animate society today (like relations of labor, ownership of the means of production, constant accumulation of profit) remain intact during spontaneous process which goes on at the surface of capital. The ideological operation of the spirit of capital is thus located at the level of spontaneity and flexibility in capital. The operation which remains masked by the ideology of the flexible “spirit” of capitalism happens precisely on the level of objective content. Thus on the one hand, liberal capitalism is capable of constantly reinventing itself ideologically (in terms of its spirit of flexibility) while on the other hand, it remains the same in terms of its inherent, objective logic. It may be then argued that it is not that capital is not defined by rigidity, but rather that it has been able to mask its rigidity with a spirit of flexibility.

The Liberal Capitalist Demand for Emancipation

In light of this basic tension between the two levels of capital (flexibility and rigidity) how are we to read the demands of today’s liberal capitalist left, which are, inter alia, demands not achievable on the level of flexibility, but rather only achievable on the level of rigidity. When liberals ask for more justice and equality in all dimensions of society (not only the political, but also in the social and economic); when they ask for expanding the degree of inclusion to those members of society who were not reached by the protective capacities of the system, for the development of a more robust system of accountability and regulation that keeps the destructive tendencies of capital in check, for a more egalitarian distribution of surplus value which would mediate the antagonism between top strata of society and everybody else –— what they are ultimately demanding is not a transformation of the flexible spirit of capital, but rather a transformation of the rigid objective mechanisms without which capital would not remain capital. The antinomy of capitalist reason, which is also its glaring utopian moment of the liberal capitalist demand, is precisely the impossibility of the demand —or rather the demand, in spite of its impossibility; when such a demand can neither be achieved nor can it be sustained within capitalist coordinates. If the demand of the liberal capitalist left were to be achieved, then it would effectively mean that we are no longer in a capitalist system.

The antinomy of liberal capitalist reason thus reveals itself with the following question: to what extent is the realization of the demand possible within the horizon of capitalism as such? The crucial deadlock which arises is one of sustainability and mediation between emancipation and capitalism within the capitalist modus operandithat is to say, if the demand for emancipation were to be realized to its utmost potentiality, to what extent are we then to say that we remain within capitalism — or — if we remain within capitalism, to what extent are we to say that we have realized the demand for emancipation?

1 Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 61.

2 Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 27.

3 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (New York: Yale University Press, 2002), 50-1.

4 Frederick Beiser, Hegel (New York: Routledge, 2005), 55.

5 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 2001), 60.

6 Luc Boltansky and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005), 3.

7 Ibid., 10.

8 Ibid., 167.

9 Karl Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 474.

10 Boltanski and Chiapello, New Spirit, 104.

11 Ibid., 103.

12 Ibid., 105.

In liberal/capitalist thought, what remains excluded from the concept of immanence is precisely this opening-up to a non-capitalist infinitude; an opening-up to non-being vis-à-vis capital, to that which is not (to a universality other than the commodity form).