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Bigger Than Capitalism
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2009-02-25 09:54:24
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The problem we face with capitalism, but rarely acknowledge, is the productivist mindset which underwrites it. We feared that capitalism would create the generic human but what it really had in store for us was a hyper genetic human. Capital itself anticipated this development by becoming a kind of genetic social code – at the core of this code is the language of productivism: if you have it you must use it – you must be efficient by all but human standards – in the interests of economic profits over other human interests. Around the world hyper-realized finance capitalism (which circles the globe via satellite), proliferates in defiance of the social. Productivism has gone virtual and its true violence is its constant refrain of irreversibility. Here it appears as a somewhat enigmatic entity under the clouded name of globalization.

There are good reasons for deep pessimism. We had faith in dialectics for a time but have now found that capitalism eludes the dialectic which remains at least one revolution behind the very real virtual economy. Rationality is breathless in the face of the contemporary global system wherein all is deterritorialized, disconnected, understood as extensions of value, and the virtual limitlessness of exchange value. Globalization is anything but a system of cohesion – it really means the disengagement of everything – a total system of dislocation which demands investment at all costs. Capitalism today is perhaps best understood as a mutant form which eradicates determination and introduces vast indeterminacies. There is no contract linking it to any society any longer other than the anti-society of banking and finance. The present is marked by a distorted kind of neo-capitalism alternating between unlimited abundance and absolute shortage.

Productivism is (and has been for some time) the only thing on earth larger and more powerful than capitalism. Our faith in productivism is the basis of our ongoing faith in capitalism (and in socialism). Productivism at some point became our master code and logic and even attempts to devise socialist alternatives to capitalism falter due to the commitment to productivism and over-determination of man as producer. Productivism is a vehicle by which alternatives to capitalism have tended only to assist the slyness of capital. This is why Marxism found itself (ironically) in the same position as bourgeois economics – a willing servant of the productivist mindset. It is hardly surprising then, that the largest and most successful of the old state-capitalist societies, China, is leading us into the openly post-democratic phase of productivism.

We are the living hosts of this productivist virus which will eventually devour everything unless we learn to think outside of it. I am as encouraged by the possibility of such a thinking as I am pessimistic that it may take place. As a first step we might take a hint from Foucault and attempt a genealogy of production and productivism. Where did it emerge, how did it become our species’ dominant ideology, at what point did it become generalized?

An important step in rethinking productivist ideology will entail a consideration of a central problem of the past 250 years – the idea that the liberation of productive forces entails the liberation of man, when, in fact, the opposite has been the result. Productivism now holds monopoly over thought to the point where it has become the amorality of the globalizing West and its “profits over people” logic.  Much of the resistance to Westernization, especially in Islamic countries is not due to the West’s value system – but its lack of a value system. We can say that ours is not a capitalist system but a system of production in which capitalism is but one part. Indeed, without productivism it is doubtful that capitalism would have survived just as it has been the dominance of productivism which has thwarted many efforts to envision alternatives.

It is useful today to look for non-productivist approaches to life among ecological alternatives, especially those which are not entirely fused with scientific versions of productivism (such as inventing a battery powered scooter so that everyone can “own” one). It is telling that so many ecologically-friendly inventors are enmeshed in productivist marketing schemes. Yet, it may be the case (and it may also take some time to emerge), that the system of production can produce something other than productivism. It is worth keeping an eye on these developments as they will mark the first time in almost a millennium that we might take seriously ideas other than those rooted in productivism. This will entail Copernican leaps in imagination concerning how we think about ourselves as a species.

The failure of so called ‘critical’ approaches has been a failure to think beyond the productivist mindset. Yet the present aleatory moment is ripe with every possibility, including the possibility of radical approaches not yet fully imagined or understood. If capitalism today appears to be dying we need to be wary that it may simply be staging its own death. Capitalism may also be capable of integrating its own death as it did the death of Marxism. Capitalism, as the dominant form of productivism, has proven itself to be the vehicle by which we can become masters only of the control of ourselves. Moving beyond a critique of capitalism to a critique of productivist ideology may indeed be our last chance. There are distant stars worth focusing on at this time.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-02-25 12:32:26
Indeed, who needs democracy if production and consumption, and the power derived from them, is what really matters? The Chinese have understood that much and thumb their nose at us whenever we go and preach human inalienable rights to them. They consider us hypocrites. What you advocate Dr. Coulter, the transcending of this destructive dehumanizing mind-set is commendable but only feasible if the dehumanization process has not destroyed yet the vision of what it means to be human, a vision which the ancients certainly had but we sadly lack; we are not even interested in in exploring the idea, and how could we, if we have dehumanized ourselves by nihilism and relativism and sheer selfishness. Somebody like Francis of Assisi, had a simple-minded solution which the cynics have always found funny and bizarre, begin by killing greed in the individual self by embracing lady poverty and by realizing that she is not a leper and to be human is not determined by one’s possessions or lack thereof but how big and disproportionally delusional are one’s desires. Perhaps that too is worth trying,yes? given that capitalism by itself does not seem to produced terribly happy individuals; rather it seems to create greedy people living lives of quite desperation in the midst of prosperity and abundance while two thirds of the world’s children are malnourished. Indeed, we desperately need an alternative to that.

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