Black Transparency in the Era of Post-Truth

Review of Metahaven (2015) Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 205 pp.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries announced ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year after it had witnessed a spike in its usage in the context of a politically charged year. Metahaven’s Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (Sternberg Press, 2015) could be read as an elegy for this award-winning word, which allegedly describes our current predicament. Over the last decade, Metahaven, an Amsterdam-based research and design studio staffed by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden and founded in 2007, has become an international brand, generating its own genre in design with a particular mix of politics with avant-garde aesthetics and graphic design. This has led to multiple international exhibitions, presentations and publications of essays and books. Black Transparency part zine, part literature review, part essay – probes how transparency as a principle intersects with spin, political activism, design, architecture and internet (pop) culture. In the book, the authors reflect on the implications of “the geopolitical architecture of “planetary-scale computation,”” a concept taken from Benjamin Bratton with which Metahaven refers to the “overlaying of the world with digital networks” (3). The internet in this centralized structure, has become a geopolitical disruptive weapon (90). Metahaven grieves the loss of the early internet, and expresses hope for a “relocalized internet governed by its citizens” (112).

The politics at play in Black Transparency are a mixture of positions. A nostalgic approach to the internet, combined with a high premium on transparency. Add a dash of libertarian paranoia towards the establishment, sautéed with a ‘fix the internet’ attitude of the hacker culture. Parts of the book read like an ambivalent, and at times stammering, farewell letter to a lost love. The jilted party is the transparency movement, more specifically, the whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks: “[w]hat once was an “intelligence agency of the people” gradually became transparency’s shipwreck” (48). Metahaven has been championing WikiLeaks since 2010, in part through a visual investigation of the politics and aesthetics of transparency. In 2011, they designed WikiLeaks merchandise: buttons, band-inspired T-shirts with file names leaked by WikiLeaks, and translucent silk scarves with ‘WikiLeaks’ printed on them. The profits were donated to WikiLeaks. Black Transparency includes images of the merchandise, as well as info-graphics mapping out the ascent of WikiLeaks onto the geopolitical stage, and the celebrity-cult that surrounded it at the height of its fame in 2013.

At the core of Black Transparency lies the authors’ critique of the modern state: nominally democratic governments conceal their fundamental reliance on secrecy. Secrecy is spelled out as “an informational privilege enjoyed by those in power” (2). The state’s informational privilege has increased thanks to “preemptive electronic surveillance of potentially every global subject, […] expanding the state’s monopoly on violence into precognitive policing of all thought and action” (3). The state’s spying capabilities are aided by our fondness of everything “smart,” and our yearning to be seen. The modern surveillance state signifies a structural change in the governance of democratic societies, Metahaven contends (3). It “recedes into neo-feudal rule by tech-overlords and extra-legal sovereigns” (57). The horseman of this neo-feudalism is the public-private nexus, a “Holy Alliance that binds old-style arcana imperii to the latest cloud technology” (57).

Against this backdrop of “unprecedented online surveillance by governments” black transparency is a “frontal attack” on the autonomy of a state “that wants more control” (2,3). What makes black transparency ‘black’ is the method of disclosure; how information becomes available is “of decisive importance to its political impact” (1). “[D]emocratic change” can be effected when the disclosure of information is uninvited, unexpected, and seemingly spontaneous. The “involuntary transparency” of black transparency sides with the unpredictable and anonymous disclosures of organizations like WikiLeaks, and whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning (xiii). It is designed to reveal “truths that are hidden under the cloak of state secrecy” (38). Black transparency reveals its secrets with the aim of embarrassing and destabilizing the security complex of the state (6), and does so “in defense of the public” (4). Black transparency reveals three things at once: the secret itself, the frantic panic of its keepers once the secret is released, and, thirdly, the spin around its disclosure (62). The ‘black’ in black transparency further means “more or less, “in darkness” as opposed to “in the light,”” (4), with which they mean to remain hidden, unidentified, and opaque. All antidotes to global surveillance go under shades of black, Metahaven argues (3). The examples given are: the Blackphone, Dark Wallet, cryptography, the Dark Web, and #BlackLivesMatter. In an age of mass surveillance, an allegiance to (encrypted) anonymity is seen as an act of resistance: anonymity for the powerless, transparency for the powerful. In the opening pages of Black Transparency Metahaven argues that “there is no transparency without enlightenment,” and “under transparency the state loses the informational privilege [secrets] that allows it to maintain itself” (xiv). However, already in the introduction of the book they foreshadow black transparency’s demise: “Symbolically, black transparency meets its end in Russia […] where nothing is true and everything is possible” (6).

Black Transparency has been a few years in the making – two of the six chapters have been published on e-flux in 2012. The book as a whole reflects how transformative those years have been for Metahaven. The first chapters sing of a love of WikiLeaks, echo the – by now – worn-out slogans of the transparency movement, and the old Enlightenment meme that truth shall prevail. The last three chapters argue that we have become captives of cloud computation, surveilled by centralized corporations, and that spin and propaganda appears to be more powerful than truth. But before we get there, we need to read through a fairly long tribute to the transparency movement. In the chapter titled “There is no Organization, There is Only You”, Metahaven contends that “Information is Power” (27). “Knowledge is Power” (24). “Transparency is Absolute Power” (24). If we are to believe Metahaven, transparency is designed to “confront liberal democracy with its hypocrisy” (31) and uncover the world’s injustices and conspiracies (26). It lays bare the “secret machinations of the powerful” (56). Transparency, they claim, holds power accountable through “action driven by understanding” (37). Informing the public, as a means to “undercut the government” can cause “far-reaching forms of democratic change,” Metahaven suggests (2). These parts of the book may leave the reader desiring for a more tightly edited plea to this modernist Enlightenment value.

As a counterpoint, there is a wealth of critical literature both on WikiLeaks and on the transparency movement that could have been engaged with. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, for instance, questions the naïve assumption that knowledge in the form of exposure will motivate people into action. “It’s strange that a hermeneutics of suspicion would appear so trusting about the effects of exposure,” she writes (Sedgwick 2003, 138f). “[A]s though to make something visible as a problem were, if not a mere hop, skip, and jump away from getting it solved, at least self-evidently a step in that direction” (139). Mark Fenster makes a similar point. He critiques the cybernetic assumptions of the transparency movement in which “the state is defined by its “streams of information”” (Fenster 2015, 153). Disclosure is here understood as “the transmission of information from state to public, and assumes that transmission will banish public ignorance, magically transform public discourse, and allow the true public to appear and triumph” (152). In an article in New Republic, Lawrence Lessig is concerned with the ideological signature of transparency. People’s responses to information are inseparable from their interests and desires, he asserts. “What we believe will be confirmed, again and again” (Lessig 2009). Information is mediated, as Richard Grusin argues, and “mediation is itself immediate”, “life itself is a form of mediation” (Grusin 2015, 132). In Publicity’s Secret (2002) Jodi Dean claims that transparency and secrecy form a false dualism. She critiques the reduction of politics into revealing what is concealed – considering that great miscarriages of justice happen in plain sight, in the realm of the hypervisible. Clare Birchall complicates the intractable relation between transparency and secrecy. “[T]ransparency can have the same effects as secrecy, and secrecy can flourish in “transparent” realms” (7). Furthermore, Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens argue in “Twelve Theses on WikiLeaks” that the black box strategy of transparency activists, aiming to be opaque in order to force transparency upon others, amounts to “little more than Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy cartoons” (Lovink and Riemens 2010). The first chapters of Black Transparency might have felt less dated if it had addressed how Metahaven’s notion of ‘black transparency’ is situated in a wider body of knowledge.

Power and knowledge do not form an automatic nexus that can be triggered by more information. The cybernetic notion that with the right information systems will adapt and change is unfortunately flawed. We often become caught up in rationalizations that only confirm what we think we know; we see what we believe. Bringing more information to the surface does not necessarily produce truth, let alone instigate structural transformation. Can political life be reduced to information? Is it knowable, or, for that matter, inherently teleological? According to transparency advocates, with the right information you can make purposeful adjustments, even systemic changes, to our political realities. Disclosures decrease the ability of a regime to hold on to power. This, too, expresses a fear of contingency and losing control. Equally problematic is the quasi-missionary propensity to bring to light the dark secrets of government, inform the uninformed masses in order to make the world a better place. This conjures spirits of truth-bearing institutions imposed on societies. Instead of challenging their own will to know, or the kind of subjectivity transparency produces, Metahaven swaps one absolute for another, and, as this part of the book stands, comes close to propagating the very kind of practices they aim to discredit.

The plot thickens in the final chapter of the book “When Pixels Become Territories”, in which black transparency finds its end. The chapter reflects on the image economy surrounding the 2014 war between Ukraine and Russia. Metahaven argues that the conflict was for an important part fought “on internet server farms” (155). The war was characterized by “alternative explanations,” (162) “energized, recreated, and post-produced through social media, image manipulation, fiction writing and role playing” (155). During the conflict, Russian workers at the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) were paid to post thousands of pro-Russian comments on Western media articles about the war. In the summer of 2014, The Guardian reported of 40K comments a day on its Russian and Ukraine related articles. Some of the other unlikely foot soldiers in this proxy cyber-war were a Moscow-based design studio, a Vietnamese amateur illustrator, a WikiLeaks retweet of a conspiracy theory, some leaked documents, a nationalist anime YouTube music video chock-full of political spin, in addition to coverage on the are by a labyrinth of state-owned Russian media outlets. In this dazzling, premediated, networked mess, it is impossible to make sense of truth, Metahaven decries. Their inspirator, WikiLeaks, is “allied with a power that should be its target,” they lament (164). “Planetary-scale computation […] is transforming geopolitics in ways we are yet to understand,” Metahaven claims (155). “‘[T]he world in general never appeared as opaque as now,” they insist (6). Empowered by networks of planetary-scale computation, “[f]antasy and reality, fiction and fact, are made equivalent” (164). Such a post-truth condition, in which “nothing is true,” is “immune to black transparency’s most fundamental critique of the state” (164). Black transparency has become “part of an order where fantasy and reality coexist” and cannot provide a way out of this conundrum (167).

What we are left with is propaganda, Metahaven maintains. And indeed, meme-wars, fake-news, alternative facts, ransomware, and conspiracy theories about foreign hackers proliferated during the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum, and further accelerated during the 2016 US election. Our lives today are dependent on computational systems that are deeply connected, interconnected, embedded and integrated. The under-examined yet palpable capabilities and fragility of these networked systems have caused some to feel more vulnerable. Has the Enlightenment model of politics come to its logical end? Has the post-truth society outpaced the information age? Have the central mediators of authority of the twentieth century run aground?

Metahaven sets out a zealous set of stipulations and questions. Confronted with their own assumptions of certainty, stability and truth, Metahaven seems anxious to see whistleblowers and transparency activists end up in a knife-fight with ‘alternative facts’ and fake news ready to be believed and widely shared on media platforms by their ideological cohorts. If spin and memes are more decisive than factual content, how can we make sense of truth? And who has the power of interpretation?, Metahaven asks in their cri de coeur.

 

Perhaps we need to ask a different question. For many “minorities” – a tremendous misnomer, as minorities form a majority – the basic institutions of authority of the twentieth century failed to provide a common ground to begin with. They know what it means to be exposed to reactionary power politics – and for that matter to racism, classism, and sexism. For decades, feminists, postcolonial, queer and gender theorists, poets, and artists alike have been challenging the presumed universal subject of Enlightenment. For decades they have been deconstructing the power structures inherent to knowledge production. For decades they have questioned the androcentric, ethnocentric and ideological assumptions of what constitutes Truth in the first place. ““The modern liberal subject”: by now it seems, or ought to seem, anything but an obvious choice as the unique terminus ad quem” (Sedgwick 2003, 139). Instead of linearly opposing the power structures of Truth, instead of swapping one Truth for another (mine is better than yours), these thinkers have pointed to the historical contingency of all ‘facts’, and continue to defend complexity, arguing for the need of new ontologies and epistemologies, and radically inclusive narratives. What is more, as Audre Lorde, who pulled no punches, argues in Sister Outsider (1984): “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 1984, 112). It may temporarily beat the master at his own game, but it will “never bring about genuine change” (112). And if this makes you feel uncomfortable, you are too attached to the master’s house, Lorde maintains (112).

Black Transparency ends with an anecdote on Pussy Riot’s anti-Putin ‘Punk Prayer’ performance in a Moscow cathedral in 2012. Metahaven considers the Russian feminist punk band the logical successor of black transparency. Pussy Riot’s interventions “trigger responses that are themselves disclosures,” Metahaven contends (168). To what end?, we may ask. Post-truth is not remedied by disclosures, by generating more proof as alternatives to the alternative facts, nor by fighting propaganda with propaganda, truths with counter-truths. Reality is irreducible to ‘facts.’ Are we willing and able to step out of the power structures that produce post-truth, even if this means a loss of power? Are we willing to compromise (our) Truth? Compromise does not mean one cannot have (and fight for) strong convictions. Compromise means increasing your ability to relate, and this entails taking into account your obligation to and interconnection with other people and things, known and unknown.

Any counter-strategy that could attend to networked propaganda, the optimization of bias, trolls, meme-wars, echo chambers, and other machinations of power, would first have to make peace with the uncertain, the unfounded – without actual examples, without field guides, pointing to uncharted territory beyond rules. Perhaps we should ask: how to shift the focus, not to bring in the promise of greater transparency or Truth, but to recognize blackness as an inherent condition of truth? How to position ourselves as open to other ways of seeing and knowing? To do the work of dismantling the master’s house means first admitting the loss of mastery.

The Parameters of Platform Capitalism

Review of Nick Srnicek (2016). Platform Capitalism. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 120 pp.

When reflecting on the impact of digital technologies on capitalism, what exactly are we referring to when we use the term ‘capitalism’? Is it an economic system wedded to a particular mode of production – one rooted in private property, market competition, and the profit motive? Is it a juridico-moral constellation whose normative framework grounds and protects the competitive pursuit of property and profit? Or rather, is it in essence a political theory whose logic of “possessive individualism” (Macpherson 1962) is internalized by subjects operating on the assumption that the market will allow them to flourish in freedom? Such questions regarding the identity and scope of capitalism may seem to express a merely theoretical concern, yet they do in fact shape the kinds of research that can be conducted, insofar as they delineate what (institutional) actors and processes can be included as legitimate objects of study. Although many critics would likely agree that capitalism is a dynamic and heterogeneous assemblage which incorporates all three aspects suggested above, the adjudication of their respective pertinence – and thus the extent to which each receives scrutiny – will undoubtedly be informed by disciplinary interests. Moreover, it is capitalism’s very heterogeneity and dynamism that complicates any attempt to grasp it as a monolithic whole, so as scholars we necessarily opt for particular approaches that foreclose others.

One therefore cannot fault Nick Srnicek for providing an unapologetically economistic reading of the most recent transformations in capitalism’s longue durée, which have been propelled by the rising ubiquity of digital platforms ranging from Google, Facebook, and Amazon to Uber, Airbnb, and Deliveroo. In Platform Capitalism, Srnicek offers his readers a sharp, concise, and historically sensitive account of what is and isn’t new about companies that mobilize platforms both as a technological architecture and a business model for gaining a competitive advantage and to create novel forms of value. In doing so, he usefully counters much of the hype that has inevitably accumulated around the platform concept, yet – as I will argue below – his focus on platform companies as primarily economic actors also obscures a number of ways in which these companies, and platform capitalism more generally, are transforming societies on a global scale. Srnicek justifies his narrow approach in the book’s introduction, by distinguishing it from existing studies on the digital economy which, despite their numerous contributions, have neglected “economic issues around ownership and profitability” or have detached such issues from their history (Srnicek 2). In response, Platform Capitalism “aims to supplement these other perspectives by giving an economic history of capitalism and digital technology, while recognizing the diversity of economic forms and the competitive tensions inherent in the contemporary economy” (2-3). The three chapters that comprise Srnicek’s slender volume realize this aim by subsequently looking at the past, present, and future of platform capitalism. Ultimately, according to Srnicek, this conceptual approach “is important for how we think strategically and develop political tactics to transform society” (7), although his analysis unfortunately stops short of developing such tactics in any detail. After considering the arguments put forward in each chapter, I will suggest that this omission can be partly attributed to the book’s lack of engagement with what exceeds the parameters of its business-centric assessment.

Past

Chapter 1, “The Long Downturn”, sets out to “historicize emerging technologies as an outcome of deeper capitalist tendencies” (7) by attending to three relatively recent events that presumably express such tendencies: the response to the economic downturn of the 1970s; the expansion and subsequent implosion of the dot-com bubble around the turn of the twenty-first century; and the aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis. I write “presumably” here not so much to question Srnicek’s account as to highlight the point that it matters what story is being told about capitalism, for it determines how we apprehend and evaluate the agents driving its change. For Srnicek, capitalism is essentially marked by “generalized market dependency” that ensures a “systemic imperative to reduce production costs in relation to prices” for goods and services, which requires the constant optimization of labor processes and productivity through technological innovation (11). This narrative concerning capitalism’s core tendencies, which focuses on competition between firms while largely limiting the role of national governments to the creation of monetary policies that stimulate investments in private assets, will turn out to inform his later assessment of platform capitalism – for better and for worse.

What I appreciated about Srnicek’s analysis in this chapter is his effort to show how capitalism as a mode of production crucially depends on both technological and financial support in its ceaseless quest for capital accumulation. The three moments he takes as exemplary expressions of capitalism’s will to power/profitability are connected by the fact that each represents a next phase in the ongoing restructuring of the modern corporation into an agile business entity, whose contemporary expression is the platform company. Such a business entity concentrates on high value-adding activities while divesting itself from “downstream” employment liabilities through technology-enabled outsourcing and subcontracting practices that remotely manage its fissured supply chains, (ostensibly reconfigured into so-called “value ecosystems” in today’s platform economy).

Moreover, this restructuring has been shaped by the increased role of financial markets and instruments, which in turn have been bolstered by deregulation and loose monetary policies. As Srnicek rightfully points out with respect to the spectacular growth of venture and equity capital investment in tech companies during the 1990s, these policies did not only lay the groundwork for the digital economy but also precipitated the 2001 stock market crash as well as the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Yet he also ignores some important processes and actors, which produces some critical blind spots in his account.

For instance, he does not pay attention to how financialization has affected business practices and objectives, especially in relation to human resource management. Although he mentions the importance of shareholder value in corporate decision-making, there is no discussion of how the proliferation of share repurchasing, or the increased role of financial service provision which shifts corporations’ core business from producing goods/services to rent-seeking, have had deleterious consequences for labor (Lazonick 2010; Thompson 2016). Furthermore, while Srnicek notes that unions during the 1980s “faced an all-out assault and were eventually broken” (17-18), he does not explain how this assault was the result of concerted government efforts. As Peck and Theodore (2012, 746) have noted, in the US these efforts “crystallized in the Reagan administration’s economic program, which not only authorized wide ranging welfare retrenchments, while taking the fight to organized labor in the form of antiunion stances and policies, but also articulated a normatively positive discourse of labor market ‘flexibility,’ while (directly and indirectly) sanctioning the expansion of contingent labor practices.” In other words, national governments do more than create favorable monetary policy; they are active (activist) agents in capitalism’s evolution, shaping the conditions for capital accumulation and labor organization. This is not just a matter of companies taking advantage of deregulation and doing what they must to cut costs and meet their bottom line, as Srnicek’s story implies. This is about neoliberal governance as a dynamic mode of intensive regulatory experimentation that reconfigures relations between business, finance, and labor while also reimagining the role of the state. Interestingly, Srnicek does not once refer to neoliberalism in this book, which may signal his distaste for the term or his reluctance to consider capitalism as a mutating political project – now increasingly concerned with governing by debt (Lazzarato 2015) – rather than solely a mode of production.

Present

Chapter 1 ends with a portrayal of “the present conjuncture” as defined by fiscal austerity, corporate tax evasion and cash glut triggering risky investments, and growing job and income insecurity (Srnicek, 34-35). This sets the scene for chapter 2, “Platform Capitalism”, in which Srnicek focuses his narrative on the rise of platforms as the new technology for extracting, processing, and analyzing data, which have become a central source of profit generation and competitive advantage in the digital economy. If this seems like a bit of a leap that’s because it is, as the chapter offers no discussion of how each of the last three recessions (1990-91, 2000-02, and 2007-09) was followed not only by a “jobless recovery” (Peck and Theodore 2006), but also by a new stage in the development of networked information and communication technologies: the World Wide Web, the so-called “Web 2.0”, and pervasive mobile internet connectivity. Each stage featured experiments with new forms of capitalist value-creation and extraction in the face of waning economic growth, yet what ultimately ties these experiments together is their quest to orchestrate increasingly frictionless markets by optimizing the distribution of information (or its proxy: data) as well as the management and prediction of human behavior (through data analytics). Each stage, then, can be understood as a particular yet cumulative articulation of behavioral economics with cybernetic reason. Srnicek does not address this development, however, and while he mentions the massive investments in internet infrastructure during the 1990s boom, I particularly missed an appraisal of Tim O’Reilly’s (2005) influential “Web as Platform” idea, which both envisioned and reflected a reconfiguration of the web into a programmable, data-driven, and “social” architecture. Despite this oversight, Srnicek offers a useful description of platforms as a new kind of firm that owns and manages a computational infrastructure which intermediates between different user-groups and governs their interaction possibilities, while “displaying monopoly tendencies driven by network effects” (48; see also Bratton 2016: 41-51). The rest of the chapter is dedicated to an overview of the emerging platform landscape, presenting and evaluating five platform types: advertising, cloud, industrial, product, and lean platforms.

Space constraints prevent me from attending to each in detail, so instead I will only address his argument concerning the latter type. His main criticism of lean platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, and other “sharing economy” start-ups is that their business model is unsustainable and they do not add anything new to the digital economy. Whereas other platform types have amassed significant assets in the form of hardware and other fixed capital (think of Google’s server farms), allowing them to gain a competitive advantage and become profitable, lean platforms operate according to what Srnicek calls a “hyper-outsourced model” that renders them dependent on third parties – most notably cloud platforms like Amazon for computing and storage capacity, and users for household assets (Airbnb) as well as labor power (Uber) (76). While this assessment is proving to be increasingly accurate, as lean platforms are tentatively starting to invest in physical assets, I think it also neglects a novelty that is quite important. Peer-to-peer markets do not seem to concern Srnicek much, but they should, because beyond their potential to dominate various industries, lean platforms are fundamentally transforming how people consume and produce goods/services. By allowing them to instantly access and monetize any potential asset, they diffuse market logics and entrepreneurial rationalities – i.e. the spirit of neoliberal capitalism – into new territories. Likewise, these platforms are altering working conditions and labor market norms across the board. While Srnicek is correct to argue that today’s gig economy is “effectively an acceleration of the long-term tendency towards more precarious employment, particularly after 2008” (79), this does not mean that platform-mediated labor just entails more of the same. For example, temporary-staffing companies such as Randstad are now experimenting with digital platforms to expand and diversify their operations as global labor market intermediaries, increasingly moving toward a data-intensive and zero-liability “workforce-as-a-service” model (Van Doorn 2017). Even though many lean platforms will undoubtedly be forced to fold in an ultra-competitive field with decreasing VC investment, the more successful ones will consolidate and converge just like other types of platforms, meanwhile stimulating profound changes in how people work (think algorithmic management) and generate an income.

Future

This brings me to the book’s final chapter, “Great Platform Wars”, in which Srnicek lays out what he views as platform capitalism’s primary tendencies and challenges in the (near) future. Here his narrow approach to capitalism as essentially revolving around inter-firm – or “intracapitalist” (95) – competition is most pronounced, which results in some perceptive yet ultimately rather limited observations about the shape of what is to come. The tendencies he discusses, which are understood to be driven by platform companies’ innate proclivity to monopolize, include the expansion of data extraction and analytics into all spheres of live, the need to safeguard one’s strategic position within value ecosystems, the progressive enclosure of these ecosystems into “silos”, and the convergence of companies toward similar markets. Subsequently, the identified challenges mainly deal with the obstacles different types of platforms are facing as they attempt to achieve profitability in various industries, despite their competitive advantages. What I found most thought-provoking in this part of the book were Srnicek’s brief speculations on new business models which focus on rent-seeking in a “post-advertising environment” where platforms are facilitating a shift from consumer ownership to access. A possible corollary of this shift could be “a massive expansion of micro-payments, as the IoT (Internet of Things) enables every good to be turned into a service that charges by the use: cars, computers, doors, refrigerators, toilets” (124). Whereas most analyses of the platform economy tend to assume the insatiability of the data-driven advertising industry, thereby assuming the durability of the “free” social media model and the partnership between platform companies, advertisers, and data-brokers which sponsors this model, such a constellation cannot be expected to survive indefinitely. And when (not if) the data bubble finally bursts, powerful platform companies like Google and Facebook will need to radically alter their monetization strategies – a necessity that is not lost on these companies, both of which continue to diversify their portfolio.

So is the era of “everything-as-a-service” upon us? Is this hyper-extractive and ultra-contingent model the future of capitalism? How will this impact our lives as well as our livelihoods, and what can we do to resist or deter this future – if we’d be so inclined? In the last few pages Srnicek considers some alternatives, ranging from stricter regulation and platform cooperatives – which he quickly dismisses – to creating collectively-owned platforms whose services are offered as public utilities. But these suggestions are little more than afterthoughts and, besides the question of how platform coops are different from “platforms owned and controlled by the people” (128), it is entirely unclear how one would go about mobilizing “the state’s vast resources” to build “postcapitalist platforms” whose control over collected data would nevertheless remain “independent of the surveillance state apparatus” (ibid.). Moreover, this assumes a clear distinction between the imperatives of public institutions, such as (supra)national governments, and private (platform) companies, which has become increasingly untenable since the rise of neoliberal statecraft. One example is the European Union’s Digital Single Market strategy, which has embraced the “collaborative economy” as a site for economic growth and aims to facilitate platform-based market innovations across Europe. Platform capitalism is more than a new version of a legacy system based on competition and profitability; it is also an updated political rationality. Platform companies know this very well and are fully invested in shaping its outcomes, having moved from regulatory arbitrage – i.e. taking advantage of legal loopholes – toward regulatory capture and policy entrepreneurship on multiple levels of government.

On a local level, meanwhile, we see the proliferation of self-proclaimed “Sharing Cities” experimenting with public-private partnerships in order to supplement and improve public services via private platforms. Such initiatives can be seen as a response to the growing pressure on municipalities to take on more responsibilities while faced with waning resources, where platforms for peer-to-peer services like meal-sharing are filling gaps in public provisioning while also stimulating local entrepreneurship and social cohesion. This brings me to my final remark with respect to Srnicek’s argument: beyond a mode of production capitalism is also, crucially, a mode of social reproduction. This means that to understand the future of neoliberal capitalism mediated by platforms we will also have to examine how these technologies reconfigure what Nancy Fraser (2014) has called “Marx’s hidden abode”: the deeply gendered, classed, and racialized organization of care and maintenance work that has remained invisible in most economic analyses, due to its largely informal nature, while it sustains labor power and capital accumulation. This would necessitate an expansion of Platform Capitalism’s parameters, acknowledging the ways in which platforms, as new institutional forms, are pervading our everyday lives while reshaping relations – and further blurring lines – between the market, the state, and civil society. I believe that such a strategic move would allow us to develop more capacious political tactics than have thus far been offered.

Fantasies of Neoliberalism: From the Clerical to the Entrepreneurial Subject

Review of Ulrich Bröckling (2015) The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject. London: Sage Publications, 256 pp.

The newly translated habilitation thesis of Ulrich Bröckling, The Entrepreneurial Self, forms an impressive and commendable overview of the forces of subjectification shaping entrepreneurial subjects of the neoliberal capitalist era into entrepreneurial selves. The subject, in this Foucauldian study, is no longer a transhistorical figure, but is itself constituted through power relations and modes of governing, moulding and taking advantage of it. Studying this subject, then, comes down to an examination of these creative fields of force. Analysing these fields of force, the study of the entrepreneurial self also tells a story about the nature of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism seeks to universalise the principles of competition found in capitalist markets throughout society. It recognises, however, that such markets do not suddenly appear and run all by themselves. They need competitive subjects to complement them: entrepreneurial selves.

Bröckling’s rich monograph is an exercise in the research field called ‘studies of governmentality’, following in the footsteps of figures such as Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose. Governmentality – or the “conduct of conduct” – points to programmes and techniques that aim at changing, steering and guiding the behaviour of human beings. Governmentality does not mean fully controlling or determining the conduct of the subject, but structuring its field of possible action (Bröckling 2016, 8-9). It is this structuring that forms the object of Bröckling’s investigation. The resulting ‘genealogy of subjectification’ presented in this book is thus less a comprehensive description of what an entrepreneurial subject looks like, but, rather, an account of what forms of knowledge, methods, techniques and practices are mobilised to actively shape this subject (Bröckling 2016, xiii and 3).

One of the defining characteristics of the Foucauldian ‘studies of governmentality’ is their extension of the notion of government, which now becomes ‘governmentality’, beyond the locus of the state. For Foucault, power cannot be located in a clearly demarcated entity, exercising it in a top-down fashion. Rather, power is dispersed through lowly and contingent relations of force. In looking for the specific knowledge and social techniques constitutive of the entrepreneurial self, then, Bröckling does not simply analyse an authoritative philosophical treatise or the exercise of power by a centralised source. Instead, he traces a ‘convergence of lines’ from heterogeneous contexts and lowly cultural sources. In this way, Bröckling structures the book in three sections. First, he addresses the methodology of the Studies of Governmentality and begins to gather some evidence for the thesis that the neoliberal subject is hailed as an entrepreneurial self. Then, there are two parts: Bröckling first draws up the picture, or rather ‘rationality’, of the entrepreneurial self as it emanates from various theoretical sources. Then Bröckling focusses his attention on four “strategies and programmes” drawn from concrete practices, namely creativity, empowerment, quality and projects.

Bröckling starts the book by delineating some of the contours of the entrepreneurial self from self-help books, training manuals and management programs, which are examples of ‘social technologies’ aiming “to organize life around the entrepreneurial model of behaviour” (Bröckling 2016, 21). Concretely, Bröckling points to what the German sociologists Voß and Pongratz describe as the ‘entreployee’: a new type of labour in post-Fordist production. The entreployee is a labour force entrepreneur who is required to increase self-organisation, self-rationalisation and self-monitoring as well as to autonomously economise their personhood. This sociological notion coincides with demands made on neoliberal subjects in management literature, such as Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman’s bestseller (1982) In Search of Excellence and Gifford Pinchot’s (1985) Intrapreneuring. Much like the entreployee, the ‘intrapreneur’ (contraction of intra-corporate entrepreneur) is a figure that is not just described as but also praised for its readiness to take risks and its drive for innovation. Impressively, Bröckling situates categories like ‘entreployee’ and ‘intrapreneur’ in a far broader context of magazine articles, bestseller self-help books, Thatcherite ‘enterprise culture’, management literature, and the advent of the ‘new economy’ of post-Fordism.

Beyond the sphere of management and organisation, Bröckling also observes in the self-help literature an ethical injunction to view one’s whole life as an enterprise, i.e. as “Me Inc”. In this case, the self is not merely hailed as an entrepreneur only at work, but always and everywhere. In the second part of the book, Bröckling goes into four widespread notions which have materialised in organisational culture, namely creativity, empowerment, quality management and the project. These are interesting topics, and Bröckling treats them in great detail and clarity. However, he fails to mention why he has specifically picked out these four rather than others, such as disruption or network. After all, these are also important buzzwords and expressions of the Californian Ideology in the management-scene of the information age. As a result of this, his treatments of these topics feel more arbitrary and less convincing than the more conceptually oriented chapters of the first part.

These early chapters, on the rationality of the entrepreneurial self, aim to show that these contemporary convergences upon some sort of entrepreneurial image of the subject are not coincidental. Rather, Bröckling demonstrates convincingly that the normative ideal of an entrepreneurial self forms part of the rationality of a family of economic theories grouped together under the label of neoliberalism. He does this by presenting the reader with an impressively clear and concise tour through a variety of theoretical currents in economics, notably ordoliberalism, human capital theory, and Von Hayek’s neoliberalism (later on, Bröckling also turns to contract theory and transaction economics). What these neoliberal theories or theorists all share, so argues Bröckling, are three fundamental convictions. First, neoliberalism argues for market mobilisation. That is, the market is viewed as the most efficient and just mechanism for resource allocation; the market mechanism should thus be universalised by instituting it in various social sectors. Secondly, neoliberalism deviates from classical liberalism in that it views not exchangeability but competition as the essence and main virtue of capitalist markets. Thirdly and finally, neoliberals maintain that neither markets nor competition come about naturally, but must be actively instituted and sustained. Combining these three theses, we may say the political mission of neoliberalism consists in creating and managing the social conditions in which markets and competition are able to come about. In this way, the crux of Bröckling’s argument becomes clear: “If the thrust of neoliberal government is toward generalising competition, modelling society as a whole on the market, then it will ineluctably come to mould subjectivity on the figure of the entrepreneur” (Bröckling 2016, 60).

Bröckling’s observation on the constellation of forces that mould the entrepreneurial subject, then, implies a wider claim on the basic structure of contemporary, neoliberal capitalism. It makes clear that the neoliberal dream of market universalisation does not merely mean the wish to institute markets in all the various spheres of society, for example through the privatisation of the public sector. It also means neoliberalism wishes to universalise the market from the public sphere of work to the private sphere of leisure. For the subject is not just an entrepreneur when he/she is sitting at his/her desk at the office, he/she is an entrepreneur of his/her entire life, “Me Inc”. Seen in this way, universalising the market through the governing technique of subjectification becomes a particularly effective way of inserting ‘human capital’ into the economic system. This technique of subjectification is itself a major component of neoliberalism.

The product of this technique of subjectification, the entrepreneurial self, is an essential element of neoliberal governmentality; it belongs to the ‘social conditions’ which must be instituted in order for neoliberal capitalism to function effectively. Accordingly, Bröckling calls the idea of the entrepreneurial self a ‘real fiction’, the kind of story which supplies “systems with the agents they need in order to operate” (Bröckling 2016, 11). As such, Bröckling’s image of the entrepreneurial self tells us nothing about actually existing subjects, but, rather, more about the forces of subjectification as we find them in actually existing neoliberalism.

It might, in this respect, seem strange that a book entitled The Entrepreneurial Self does not primarily deal with a self at all, but rather with its genealogical production. Bröckling self-consciously refrains from claiming anything about the effectiveness of the power structures which govern the subject, i.e. from claiming that subjects in fact have become entrepreneurial selves. This means, first, that he does not claim that subjects in today’s world behave like entrepreneurial subjects and, second, that he does not attempt to say that subjects experience the lifeworld as governed by the call to act like an entrepreneur. One can laud Bröckling’s self-restraint here, but one may also wonder whether he does not make it too easy for himself by ignoring the question of to what extent the notion of an entrepreneurial self resonates with the intuitions of those who live and act in contemporary capitalism. Could he not at least have referred to the kind of studies which have attempted to make the sociological, rather than the genealogical, claim about neoliberal subjects, such as Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character? Moreover, does the plausibility of Bröckling’s claims not rest on the fact that the force field of entrepreneurialism resonates with our actual experience? What makes Bröckling’s account intuitive is not just the presence of his theses in ‘high’ theory and ‘lowly’ management programmes, but also in the actual effects of this complex of prescriptions on the behaviour and experience of neoliberal subjects.

Having said that, let us look at what, according to Bröckling, constitutes an entrepreneurial subject more specifically. To this end, Bröckling distinguishes four functions of the entrepreneur as a macroeconomic category. These functions are respectively: the entrepreneur as speculator, innovator, risk-bearer and coordinator.

First, the notion of the entrepreneur as speculator is put forward in reference to economists Von Mises and Kirzner, who both stress that human beings are not just utility calculators, but also possess alertness to opportunities such as arbitrage, a price difference in the same commodities in different markets. The defining feature of the entrepreneur here, then, is her spontaneous alertness to such opportunities of speculation. Secondly, with the entrepreneur as innovator, Bröckling points to the works of Schumpeter, and his conception of the creative destroyer. Here the entrepreneur is a figure who exhibits leadership and establishes new combinations in production and distribution. As opposed to the rationalising and imitative manager, she is the instigator of novelty and difference in opposition to routine and staleness. Thirdly, the entrepreneur can be seen, as in the account of Frank H. Knight, as a risk-bearer. Knight here points to a fundamental uncertainty with respect to human action and knowledge. Rational action cannot be calculated with a straightforward utility function, but is stricken by a fundamental contingency. The entrepreneur, in opposition to the wage labourer and manager, bears this contingency in order to enjoy profit, and in this way she also assumes responsibility. Fourthly and finally, the entrepreneur fulfils the function of the coordinator. Her judgements and decisions regarding resource allocation and coordination attempt to be more efficient than, and therefore different from, business as usual, in which inefficiency is always the rule. In this way, the entrepreneur as coordinator is an agent of change.

Now, according to Bröckling, what unifies these separate, but not entirely unrelated, accounts of what the entrepreneurial function is, is that it is centred around such values as the new and the unknown rather than around the old and the known: “The theories we have analysed above all distinguish the entrepreneurial function from that of the calculating, instrumentalist, rationalist manager” (Bröckling 2016, 75). This proclaimed shift from the rationalist clerk to the innovative entrepreneur fits neatly with a commonplace description of present-day capitalist modernity as having moved from a conception of the capitalist subject as a Weberian-Marxian cog in the machine to an artistic, creative and autonomous post-’69 subject. It fits in with the proclaimed shift, in other words, from the old to the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello), or from solid to liquid modernity (Zygmunt Bauman), organised to disorganised modernity (Lash and Urry), or industrial to reflexive modernity (Ulrich Beck). For Bröckling, the terms of neoliberal governmentality are marked by this shift from rationalist clerk to the entrepreneurial self.

Uncomfortable Ethnographies: The Politics of Race and the Untimeliness of Critique

Review of: Gloria Wekker (2016) White Innocence. Durham: Duke University Press, 240 pp.

In a recent article titled “The coercive character of our ‘normal’”, Sander van Walsum (2017) briefly refers to the controversy surrounding the Dutch politician and ex-VJ and media presenter, Sylvana Simons. Van Walsum tries to understand the sharp turnaround in the public profile of Simons, from popular media presenter to hated public voice against racism. To the extent that Simons remained simply a “coloured” face in media culture, she was popular. But hidden behind that popularity lay the problematic politics of tolerance which Wendy Brown’s (2006) book-length analysis has exposed. For Simons could be popular only to the extent that her race was a commodity and/or an irrelevant aspect of her identity, and not “an issue”. The moment she scathingly brought up the racist and colonial mentality in the Netherlands, the often revolting public attacks against her began. Van Walsum suggests Simons’ exposed the racist assumption that she existed precisely thanks to the public and so should conform to its expectations – that is, shut up about race, and racism, since the Netherlands was not racist. After all, how could she have been so popular if it had been so?

The Simons controversy exposes something particular, and peculiar, within Dutch society. On the one hand, the claim that Dutch society is extraordinarily liberal, open-minded, and yes, that word again, tolerant. On the other, the dramatic rise in racist and xenophobic political populism since the late 1990s. Gloria Wekker confronts this paradox, and its attendant historical precedents, in her politico-economic and cultural genealogy of contemporary Dutch society. As an activist and public intellectual, Wekker’s longstanding involvement in issues around gender, race and sexuality are crystallized in a clearly constructed and lucidly developed series of arguments which in book form confront this paradox head on. This paradox is addressed by Wekker by framing herself as an anthropologist with the goal of “making the familiar world strange” (ix). Wekker’s goal of making the commonplace consensus strange seems appropriate given the claims of incomprehension and denial by which accusations of racism are met.

In the Introduction, Wekker identifies the central object of her analysis, “the white Dutch sense of self”, an ethnographic analysis of which would reveal that “whiteness is not acknowledged as a racialized/ethnicized positioning at all” (2). In making this argument, Wekker connects to a longer intellectual study of whiteness, such as Richard Dyer’s White (1997), whose relative invisibility in studies of race and ethnicity kept whiteness as the norm rather than as a subject (and ethnicity) itself worthy of analysis. Specifically for the Dutch case, Wekker argues, whiteness is the effect of “an unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and affects based on four hundred years of Dutch imperial rule” which structures “dominant meaning-making processes” including, one may presume, the vociferous denials of racism. She deploys Edward Said’s concept of the “cultural archive” (1993) as an analytical tool for understanding how the present Dutch climate around race relations is structured. The terms “imperial rule”, “cultural archive” and an ethnography of white Dutch selfhood are linked thus by Wekker: “a racial grammar, a deep structure of inequality in thought and affect based on race, was installed in nineteenth-century European imperial populations and … it is from this deep reservoir, the cultural archive that … a sense of self has been formed and fabricated” (2). And it is this self which she argues is marked by “white innocence”.

The recurrent appearance of the word “deep” should already suggest to the reader that Wekker’s analysis is based on a depth-hermeneutic that begins with and dives below the surface articulations of racial and ethnic discourse in the Netherlands. In revealing the present legacies of the hidden colonial archive, Wekker takes recourse to a primarily psychoanalytical language of “splitting” and “displacement” (4) to explain the processes by which the denial of European history manifests itself in the crises around racism today in Dutch society. This plumbing the depths of Dutch history and the cultural archive however, does not seek to find one singular cause for the prevalence of denial in the construction of white Dutch selfhood. Wekker immediately states that she attempts an “intersectional reading of the Dutch colonial archive, with special attention for the ways in which an imperial racial economy” is marked by “gendered, sexualized, and classed intersections” (2).

Her intersectional analyses, spread out across the subsequent five chapters, focuses primarily on the western part of the Dutch empire, that is, Suriname and the Antilles. Each of these chapters fleshes out what Wekker identifies as three paradoxes which structure the white Dutch sense of self:

  • a refusal to identify with migrants;
  • the innocent victim of German Occupation;
  • Dutch imperialism.

At first, a reader might find the stating of these elements confusing since they do not seem to name a paradox but perhaps historical “features” of Dutch selfhood. It is here, however, that the sometimes uncertain place of psychoanalysis is important to emphasize, since what Wekker is arguing is that in each of these elements, a process of denial is crucial. That is, (1) the historical reality of migration which structures all and not just non-white Dutch populations is denied; (2) the Dutch self-image as victim represses the memory of violence and collaboration in the Netherlands which marked the extermination of Jews under the Occupation; and (3) a denial of the crucial importance of Dutch imperialism in structuring forms of white superiority in the Dutch context.

These three denials, Wekker convincingly argues, enable a self-presentation of the white Dutch Self as “innocent”, the central concept through which Wekker develops her analyses in the chapters that follow. In other words, a process of denial helps the positing of a self-image of innocence – and innocence is of course a powerful mode of refusing accusations of racism. The paradoxes she identifies are fleshed out in three “innovations” in her methodology. Firstly, as already stated above, Wekker thinks of race, sexuality and gender together in an intersectional frame. Secondly, she links metropolitan and colonial history in her analyses; and lastly, she links the Eastern and Western spheres of Dutch imperialism. Each of these innovative perspectives are differentially evidenced in the five chapters which follow. The reader thus encounters different features of a complex theoretical and conceptual framework (three paradoxes and three perspectives) being deployed at different levels of intensity in each of the five controversies she constructs.

The first chapter analyzes “case studies of everyday racism” ranging from controversial statements on a Dutch TV talk show to literary analysis of Ellen Ombre’s Negerjood. Unlike the other chapters, which primarily though not exclusively fasten on a single object of analysis, this chapter captures in miniature, as it were, both the wide range of Wekker’s field of analyses as well as the conceptual resources she will deploy throughout the book. The importance of psychoanalysis is felt most strongly in this chapter with invocations of Fanon on the European unconscious, and processes of “internalization and splitting” (41). Further, the crucial link between racism, gender and sexuality are brought out through a reading of the submerged effects of the experience of slavery in the work of Toni Morrison (Beloved), the work of historian and sociologist Rudolf van Lier (Samenleving in een Grensgebied) and historians including Avtar Brah and Laura Ann Stoler.

The second chapter turns to important sites of knowledge-production blessed with the official sanction of being sciences, namely the University and governmental policy-making. The chapter swiftly shifts the focus from the sphere of popular culture (such as TV) to explore the enormous power that the nexus of racism and sexism exerts within government policy-making, the academy generally, and women/gender studies in particular. One of the most important insights Wekker offers in her analysis of policy-making is the shift from “commensurate participation in society” and “integration, while holding on to one’s own identity” (55, emphasis added) to an increasing focus on “shared values” (55) and the necessity of integrating migrants into “Dutch society”. In other words, a broader focus on “employment, education, housing and political participation” (55) toward a more egalitarian society has been increasingly replaced by firstly the identification of “problem” groups (Turks, Moroccans, Antilleans) and their integration into Dutch society. Wekker’s own involvement in different government policy-making organs provides for compelling evidence that “long-standing ideas about and practices with regard to race” (58) structure the aims of policy, the allocation of funds, and the involvement (or not) of relevant, non-white partners in the process of policy-making. Her analyses reveal that the category “woman” is considered white, that “allochtonous women” do not fall within the ambit of “women” while the specific differences between allochtonous women are ignored. This colour-blindness regarding gender is then convincingly shown precisely in the area of women/gender studies, where once again the category “woman” does not include women of colour. In this chapter, Wekker’s intersectional focus on class, sexuality, race and gender clearly exposes the compartmentalized functioning of intellectual labour within the University, and policy-making generally.

The third chapter “The Coded language of the Hottentot Nymphae and the Discursive Presence of Race, 1917” fastens on an interesting if little-known case in the history of psychoanalysis in which three Dutch women were treated by the psychoanalyst Dr. J.H.W. van Ophuijsen. Here, the complex processes of identification and displacement become evident in the paradox Wekker identifies in which, while the white, upper-class women, believing they possessed overly developed labia minora, identified with “the supposed morphology of black women’s genitalia”, their doctor, on the other hand, dismissed their claims and persisted in diagnosing them as suffering from “a masculinity complex”. What propelled the doctor’s denial of these women’s racial imaginings, and why was it necessary, Wekker asks, for colonial ideologies of black women’s bodies and sexualities to be read through the lens of masculinity? In exploring this paradox fed by denial (the doctor’s) and displacement (the three women), Wekker deploys the notion of the colonial archive, and the relation between the metropolis and the colony, to show how crucial sites of cultural dissemination, including advertisements, magazines and the World exhibitions, had provided a script through which these white women were exposed “to knowledge about black women and their bodies” (93). Further, Wekker shows how medical-scientific discourse furnished fantasies of the civilized male and the evolutionary higher-placed white race, thus relegating both women and people of colour to inferior positions in both scientific and popular discourse. Wekker convincingly shows how the black female body becomes the over-determined site through which an “explicit discourse on gender and sexuality…was informed by implicit assumptions about racial difference”(106).

It is in the chapter titled “Of Homo Nostalgia and (Post)Coloniality” that the strength of Wekker’s intersectional analysis comes most to the fore, as she moves between a genealogy of the women’s and gay rights movement, the contemporary defence of gay rights, and the disparaged figure of the un-integrated allochthon. The Dutch situation is particularly important here, since the alignment of Left and Right with specific political views gets undone in the wake of xenophobic gay rights and women’s rights discourses. While elsewhere, particularly the U.S., conservative social views issue from a combined homophobic and racist milieu, Wekker rightly argues that in the Dutch case seemingly feminist and gay rights’ discourses are closely aligned with malignant notions of cultural alterity and racial/ethnic/cultural inferiority. Hence the subtitle of the chapter ‘Or, Where did all the Critical White Gay Men go?’. Wekker rightly argues that women’s emancipation was understood in far more expansive terms including issues of education, employment, child care and sexual violence. The gay liberation movement, on the other hand, argues Wekker quoting existing research, was marked by “the depoliticized character of Dutch gay identity” (116) which was “anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Mepschen et al 2010, 971) and closely linked to normative notions of citizenship and exclusionary notions of nationalism.

Wekker fleshes out this normativity by exposing how a white European understanding of gay identity underwrote both the identification of sexuality of people from other cultures as well as the demand for integration through the rhetoric of exposure in “coming out” discourse and speaking in public. Noting the virtual absence of “white and black, migrant and refugee lesbians” from the current political landscape, as well as the class-blindness of sexual rights discourse, she argues that “the assumption that speaking about one’s sexuality is only natural and thus good for everyone” (121) remains unquestioned. This equation between sexual acts and sexual identity which undergirds sexual rights discourse is singularly white, middle-class, European. Yet, precisely by claiming the status of former victims of homophobia, a nostalgic discourse of defensiveness against minorities is deployed by Dutch gay men.

In addition to an unexamined normativity, Wekker deploys Said’s concept of the cultural archive to situate the ambivalent relationship of desire and disgust which structures much public discourse of white Dutch gay men. The ethnic other (in this case, young men of Moroccan and Turkish backgrounds) is both desired and vilified. Wekker refers to a controversial interview with the late Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay man whose political campaigns targeted primarily those in the Netherlands having an Islamic background. Fortuyn’s stated desire for young Moroccans was matched by a dismissive stance toward their seemingly backward attitude – that is, denial of their homosexuality. Wekker insists that the raced and classed discourse of the white right to avail itself of the bodies of women and men in colonial history emerges precisely in this dialectic of desire and disgust. Thinking through gender, race and sexuality allows Wekker to situate the nostalgic gay rights discourse against minorities within a comparative perspective (with the women’s rights movements) and through an identification of the persistence of colonial modes of thought on coloured bodies and their sexualities. Her analysis punctures a developmental discourse of sexual and gender rights from an intersectional perspective, fleshing out in greater detail an earlier critique by Judith Butler (2008) of the link between history, time and sexuality.

The last full chapter of the book explores the increasingly virulent reactions in Dutch society to the critique of the figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), often identified as a Moorish servant to a white bishop, Sinterklaas. This cultural tradition accompanied by much festivity is celebrated annually on December 5. Zwarte Piet’s integral place within tradition, particularly one enjoyed primarily by children, Wekker convincingly argues, helps explain the impassioned responses any anti-racist critique of this figure precipitates. Here the claim of “innocence” is most clearly seen since the figure of the innocent child enjoying a well-established Dutch tradition functions as a mechanism whereby the claim of racism can be denied. Wekker situates a series of controversies, including the cancellation of an artistic intervention around Zwarte Piet by two artists invited by the Van Abbe Museum in 2008, to then analyze the defensive (and aggressive) responses elicited primarily on the internet to critiques of the figure of Zwarte Piet. Deploying Paul Gilroy’s notion of “postcolonial melancholia”, Wekker frames the discourse that claims Zwarte Piet is part of “our” (Dutch) tradition as a melancholic response of sadness where something valuable from colonial history is threatened by the presence of the unwanted outsiders within. Coupled with the continual references to children, and thus a discourse of innocence, the structure of denial and then displacement (foreigners do not understand “our” tradition) generates an aggressively defensive discourse of an innocent white Dutch identity.

Wekker’s argument that whiteness exempts itself from charges of racism through claims of innocence is innovatively built up by moving her analytical gaze across a very disparate range of objects – from TV talk shows, psychoanalytical case study, popular controversies around tradition, literary analysis, and institutional critique. As a method, taking this very varied set of objects as scenes for analysis, often punctuated by tellingly painful and pungent personal anecdotes, makes for refreshing reading since no one disciplinary paradigm with its own privileged object domain prevails. Structuring this wide-ranging series of analyses through the triple-paradox framework helps the reader to situate her attention even as analytical objects shift rapidly. The use of psychoanalytic language (denial, repression, splitting, internalization, displacement) is iconoclastic, since Wekker’s engagement with psychoanalysis is primarily through its generative power evidenced in the work of writers such as Fanon and Césaire, rather than through explicit invocation of Freud and/or Lacan as “masters” of the discourse.

Wekker’s book-length study of White Innocence is untimely. If timeliness means being appropriate, and exhibiting the norms of propriety, then White Innocence speaks to an interlocutor – the white Dutch self – who would find the book inappropriate, and confronting. And that is precisely the book’s aim. One could argue that being untimely, in this sense, is precisely what critique means. Wekker’s scholarly intervention in an increasingly fraught public debate around race exhibits precisely the right sort of untimeliness, that is, puncturing the complacent, consensual and self-deluding image of a small, liberal and innocent nation whose culture is far from racist.

White Innocence is untimely in another sense too. There might be a sense for some readers going through the book that “of course” would be the obvious response to an argument which claims that colonial history and deep structures of racism, misogyny and homophobia structure the white self – that is, a sense of “haven’t we heard this all before?” But this is precisely where the book is untimely in a productive and critical way. For in the Dutch context, as Wekker clearly shows, it is precisely a denial of colonial history, with its attendant intellectual, affective and discursive consequences, that marks the contemporary multicultural scene of politics. The book then is not repeating an argument in an all-too familiar context. Rather, it is inserting a critical analysis into a national context which has strenuously denied any implication in the dark history of colonialism and racism. These two forms of untimeliness make Wekker’s intervention particularly useful in a Dutch political climate unwilling to look critically at its own self-image, as well as for theorists of race beyond the Netherlands who seek to understand how racism manifests itself quite differently in different geo-political contexts.

Water

Recensie van: René ten Bos (2015) Water, een geofilosofische geschiedenis. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom, 352 pp.

In Water wordt het gelijknamige element geanalyseerd vanuit het standpunt van de geofilosofie, waarin het denken en de wereld waarbinnen het denken zich voltrekt met elkaar verstrengeld zijn. Deleuze en Guattari, geofilosofische denkers pur sang, thematiseren het landschap waarbinnen het denken plaatsvindt en stellen dat het landschap meedenkt met het denken. Subject en object kunnen volgens de geofilosofie niet naast elkaar worden geplaatst en hebben een wederkerige relatie tot elkaar. Ten Bos schaart zich bij deze geofilosofische standpunten door te stellen dat water meedenkt met de filosofie: ‘We zouden het moeten aandurven dit denken in water onder te dompelen’ (16). Wat volgt is niet alleen een exposé over hoe het denken door toedoen van water vorm heeft gekregen, waarbij diep wordt gegraven in de geschiedenis van de filosofie, maar ook een pleidooi voor de relevantie van geofilosofisch denken. Als water voortdurend doorsijpelt in het denken, zoals Ten Bos betoogt, hoe kan dan de geschiedenis van de filosofie worden herschreven en welke rol is daarbij weggelegd voor een geofilosofische manier van denken?

De wortels van geofilosofisch denken zijn te vinden bij Thales – verguisd door Aristoteles en Plato, maar omarmd door Nietzsche omwille van Thales’ overtuiging dat de natuur uit zichzelf tot ons zou kunnen spreken (25). Thales stelt dat water het leidende principe, de zogenaamde archè, is van alle realiteit. Dit ‘waterige’ begin van de filosofie duidt op een meer ongewisse bodem van het denken, dat geen vaste grond aan de voeten krijgt. Het denken verdrinkt in de wereld die het overspoelt. De werkelijkheid is volgens Thales daarom het beste te begrijpen als een ‘eeuwigdurend worden’ (36). Na Thales hebben filosofen geprobeerd het vlietende karakter van water weg te denken, bijvoorbeeld door te stellen dat de mens alleen de werkelijkheid kan doorgronden als hij bereid is God als het eerste principe te erkennen (32). Het stromende karakter van de eeuwig wordende werkelijkheid bedreigt de zuiverheid en stabiliteit van de polis, aldus Plato. Door het mogelijke binnendringen van ‘verkeerde zeden en gebruiken van overzee’ is de polis volgens Plato gebaat bij een ‘groot redder en goddelijke wetgevers’ (52). Immers, een stad die zich openstelt voor de zee kan in moreel verval komen. Plato draagt de ‘manier van de logos’ aan als een methode die ‘het wezen of de essentie die alle veelvoudigheid moet verbinden’, zodat men door een wereld kon koersen die werd gezien als ‘onmiskenbaar divers en veelsoortig’ (66). De meervoudigheid van de wereld kan tot uitdrukking worden gebracht wanneer deze wordt ingeperkt. Volgens Ten Bos kan de democratie de meervoudigheid van de wereld blijvend benadrukken: ‘Het geruis van de democratie is een echo van het geruis van de zee’ (71). De democratie is in fundamentele zin anti-logos omdat zij kan leiden tot een voortdurend hernieuwd omarmen van de meervoudigheid van de wereld, waarmee zij steeds opnieuw de eenheid van de polis ter discussie stelt. Democratie kan volgens Ten Bos worden gezien als een voortdurend experiment.

Zoals opgemerkt heeft het denken over de natuur (en het water zelf) te maken gehad met een zekere afkeer van het denken van Thales, oftewel thalassofobie. Wie denkt dat Herakleitos’ bekende uitspraak panta rhei of ‘alles stroomt’ doelde op een diepe poëtische meditatie op de manier waarop fysieke processen verlopen komt bedrogen uit. Herakleitos reflecteert op de manier waarop water doorlopend zijn stemming beïnvloedt: ‘Wie bijvoorbeeld in een rivier stapt om haar te doorwaden, wordt zelf ook doorwaad’ (84). Water heeft voor Herakleitos ook een meer sinistere associatie met duisternis en slapen: in beide gevallen geeft men zich over aan een bepaalde situatie. Uiteindelijk leidt dit tot een ambivalent beeld van water, wat ons kan doden door verdrinking maar daarnaast ook dient als brandstof voor het leven en de ziel. In plaats van het denken onder te dompelen in water verkondigt Plato een aards of chtonisch perspectief waarbij de logos kan voorkomen dat het denken ten onder gaat in het onwezenlijke, veranderlijke en vloeiende water. Vanaf het begin van de jaartelling neemt de thalassofobie een meer extreme vorm aan wanneer gnostici de zee zien als ‘een materieel symbool voor de duisternis waarin het goddelijke verzonken ligt’ (108). Het christendom, de gnosis en het neoplatonisme verbinden een toenemende angst voor de kosmos met de overtuiging dat heil alleen kan worden gevonden door een speurtocht naar de eigen ziel, al dan niet met behulp van de troost die men kan vinden bij de medemens. Dante verkondigt in deze tijd een heel andere visie. Water en aarde, zo betoogt hij, vermengen zich op allerlei manieren en hebben daarom geen vastomlijnde contouren of grenzen (113). Dit staat haaks op de rigide onderverdeling van de elementen in het in die tijd dominante aristoteliaanse wereldbeeld. Hieruit rijst de vraag of water nu hoger ligt dan de aarde of juist lager dan de aarde. Dante kiest geen positie in dit debat en lijkt zich neer te leggen bij de ‘essentiële onverklaarbaarheid van de verhouding van water met de aarde’ (120). Water verschijnt aan het denken ‘als iets volstrekt ondoorgrondelijks’ (Ibid.). In plaats van het vinden van de ultieme oorzaak van de verschijnselen in de wereld, roept Dante op het denken opnieuw op de dieptes van het water af te stemmen door empirisch onderzoek.

Dit betekent echter niet dat het denken over water haar apotheose bereikt met het empirisch onderzoek dat heeft geleid tot de molecuulformule H2O, die slechts een deel van de betekenis van water kan duiden. Ten Bos meent dat er altijd ‘een residu aan onrust blijft hangen’ wanneer we water uitputtend proberen te beschrijven’ (123). Pogingen water van betekenis te voorzien vanuit een geofilosofisch perspectief dienen van dit bewustzijn doordrongen te zijn. Meer gepast is een vorm van ‘verlegenheid’ (124). Ten Bos meent dat water moet worden gezien als rizoom, een niet-hiërarchische en niet-doelmatige ‘wortel’. Daarbij beroept Ten Bos zich op het werk van wetenschappers die werkzaam zijn op het gebied van de hydrologie en chemie. Deze wetenschappers hameren zelf voortdurend op het grillige en onvoorspelbare gedrag van water.

Water verhoudt zich slecht tot eigendom en vormt de inzet van conflicten tussen natiestaten. Vanaf de zestiende eeuw leidde de overtuiging dat de paus de enige en absolute autoriteit in de wereld was tot hevige oorlogen. Hugo de Groot ontwikkelt in deze tijd een volkenrecht dat stelt dat ieder volk de zeeën zou mogen bevaren en handel zou mogen drijven met andere volken (167). De Groot zag dit idee als een heilige wet of natuurwet die op geen enkele manier door politieke machten terzijde mocht worden geschoven. Bovendien zag hij de zee als ongrijpbaar, onbegrensbaar en onuitputtelijk, wat het onmogelijk maakt de zee als eigendom te zien. Op vergelijkbare wijze stelt filosoof Carl Schmitt dat aanspraken op eigendom en soevereiniteit alleen gelden op het land. Schmitt hekelt de nadruk op het land in de politiek omdat water en zee volgens hem de oergrond van het leven zijn. Vanaf het moment dat de Engelsen kiezen voor een maritiem bestaan ontstaat volgens Schmitt een ommekeer van het ruimtebeeld, waarbinnen de wereld niet louter vanuit het land maar juist vanuit de zee werd gezien. In het liberaal-kapitalisme kan de zee worden gezien als een ‘gladde’ ruimte zonder lijnen, inkervingen en punten. In deze ruimte kan men alleen overleven door te navigeren met behulp van geprojecteerde lijnen en meridianen. Hoewel het kapitalisme de ‘gladheid’ van de zee met lijnen wenst te doortrekken, zou het nooit zonder die gladheid kunnen functioneren (185). Daar waar het kapitalisme tracht de ruimte te construeren waarbinnen ‘vrije’ handel kan plaatsvinden, vindt men zowel een ‘proliferatie van regels en technieken’ als ‘een toenemende wanorde’ (Ibid.).

Aan de hand van Peter Sloterdijks werk bestrijdt Ten Bos Schmitts rigide scheiding tussen land en zee. Sloterdijk hamert op de amfibische kwaliteiten van mensen. Door te duiken staat het ik niet langer tegenover de wereld in een ‘confronterende’ zijnswijze, maar lost het ik op in een ‘mediale’ zijnswijze in wat Sloterdijk een ‘sfeer’ noemt (197). Voor Sloterdijk staat duiken gelijk aan verbinding, deelname en enthousiasme. Een ander element dat refereert naar water in Sloterdijks denken is de notie van eiland, dat wordt gezien als een ‘utero-technisch’ project waarmee ‘de wereld op afstand wordt gehouden en mensen erin slagen dicht bij elkaar te zijn’ (203). Hoewel de mens aan overbrugging doet, zijn afzonderen en isoleren ook typisch menselijke eigenschappen. Sloterdijk stelt diegenen die aan overbrugging doen ten voorbeeld. Juist de mensen die vaste grond en zekerheid onder de voeten willen krijgen, zijn verliezers in deze tijd van globalisering. Deze mogelijkheid tot verbinding kan uitnodigen tot een romantisch beeld van de zee. Michel Serres wijst echter op het feit dat de zee ons gehele sensorium overhoopgooit: op zee weet je niet of je iets hoort of ziet en soms kun je je op je gemak voelen en dan weer volledig van slag raken. De zee is zowel intiem als vijandig. De grote witte walvis, het lijdend voorwerp van de toorn van kapitein Achab in Herman Melvilles Moby Dick, kan worden gezien als symbool van het kapitalisme dat zich aandiende in de tijd van Melville (237). Marx, eveneens getuige van het opkomende kapitalisme, duidde de nieuwe productieverhoudingen van zijn tijd in termen van stroming en circulatie, waarbij geld als smeermiddel optreedt. Wat betreft de rol van geld schrijft Marx dat ‘geld enerzijds een soort beknopt overzicht van alle dingen levert, maar anderzijds die dingen ook afwezig maakt omdat men er alleen nog maar de ruilwaarde van ziet’ (240). Ten Bos betoogt dat ‘de karakterloosheid en betekenisloosheid van de zee lijken op die van wit en die van geld. Alleen in een wereld waarin niets vaststaat, kunnen karakterloosheid en betekenisloosheid ongeremd gedijen’ (241). Kapitalisme gedijt daarom goed in een maritieme ruimte, wat in het geval van Melville wordt gerepresenteerd door de witte walvis.

De zee kan worden gezien als ‘mineraalrijk land dat vraagt om rationeel beheer en duurzame ontwikkeling’ (253). Dehistorisering en depolitisering van de zee, volgens Ten Bos inherent aan het kapitalisme, moeten worden bestreden omdat daardoor het begrip van de relatie tussen mens en zee ons ontglipt. Inzichten uit de ‘exacte’ wetenschappen en de menswetenschappen kunnen helpen de relatie tussen mens en zee te duiden, waardoor de samenleving tot het inzicht kan komen dat ecologische crises niet met eenvoudige chirurgische ingrepen te genezen zijn. Het verkondigen van sombere boodschappen is echter niet lucratief voor de wetenschap, omdat dit niet aanlokkelijk is voor het bedrijfsleven, die de noodzakelijke financiering voor onderzoek levert. Een ‘blauwgroene’ vorm van kapitalisme lijkt het huidige denken over de zee te beheersen: ‘Blauw is de gedachte dat de zee nog steeds een sky-high belofte inhoudt … groen is de gedachte dat diezelfde zee nog steeds een onuitputtelijke en vruchtbare levensbron is’ (265). Tegenwoordig moet de waarde als levensbron worden gezien als ‘onuitputtelijke geldbron’, waaruit een ‘kapitalistisch delirium’ spreekt: Áan de ene kant wil de ondernemer de bestaande wereld ontstijgen en aan de andere kant wil hij de controle erop niet verliezen’ (Ibid.). De ecologische destructie die deze houding tot gevolg heeft, kan de zee transformeren in de primordiale zeeën van honderden miljoenen jaren geleden, waar alleen eencelligen overleefden. Hoewel Ten Bos hier duidelijk zinspeelt op politiek-normatieve aspecten van de filosofie, wordt het niet geheel duidelijk hoe filosofen zich aan de hand van geofilosofische principes kunnen mengen in ecologische vraagstukken. Het denken mag zich weliswaar vol overtuiging in de diepte van het water storten, maar hoe kunnen filosofen ervoor zorgen dat beleidsvormingsprocessen een vergelijkbare koers gaan varen?

Na de beschrijvingen van de verhouding tussen de poëzie en de wetenschap, het overweldigende karakter van water dat het denken heen en weer slaat tussen uniformiteit en multipliciteit en de invloed van kapitalistische productieverhoudingen op het denken en water komt Ten Bos in het laatste hoofdstuk van Water tot een besluit met een meer methodologisch-conceptueel karakter. Hoe kunnen we ‘het vloeibare’ (285) begrijpen wanneer ons verstand, zo meent bijvoorbeeld Kant, eigenlijk helemaal niet daartoe is uitgerust? De (zuivere) rede trekt de mens op het droge, vanwaar de wereld kan worden gekend en gewaardeerd. Michel Serres roept op juist af te dalen in de diepte. Daarbij is weliswaar een rol voor de rede weggelegd, maar volgens Serres hoeven we ons niet te beperken tot ‘punten, lijnen en vlakken’ (287). Er is een vloeiende strategie nodig die wetenschap en ethiek met elkaar verbindt. Volgens Serres kan de notie van het clinamen van Lucretius een eerste aanzet geven tot een meer fluïde wetenschap. Het clinamen, een immanente vorm van verandering in de natuur, verduidelijkt dat objecten voortdurend kunnen worden beïnvloed door zaken die buiten hen plaatsvinden (294). Serres duidt het universum als een ‘meervoudigheid van stromen’ (295), waarbij er geen essentieel verschil tussen lokaal en globaal bestaat: ‘Omdat het hele universum constant meedeint met alle kleine en grote gebeurtenissen, vervalt het hele verschil tussen beide’ (Ibid.). Mens en wereld deinen mee met de wereld. Een nautische ethiek openbaart zich: ‘Leer accepteren dat instabiliteit de wet is. Omarm complexiteit. Begrijp dat ethiek identiek is met de natuurkunde’ (297). In plaats van de wereld in een onwrikbare orde te plaatsen, laveert de wijze wetenschapper tussen ‘evenwicht en afwijking’ en streeft daarbij naar ‘meedeinen, meeveren, meegaan’ (298). Het verlangen van de rationaliteit naar eenheid is illusoir omdat deze slechts van buiten aan de wereld kan worden opgedrongen.

De meervoudigheid van de wereld is goed te zien in water. In het meervoudige ‘hangt alles met alles samen en zoekt alles verbinding met alles’ (300). Uiteindelijk is de wereld als water: ongrijpbaar, onbegrijpbaar, hooguit zintuiglijk waarneembaar. Het geofilosofische project van Ten Bos lijkt voornamelijk gericht te zijn op de mate waarin de overweldigende en onpeilbare mysterieuze diepte van water wordt geaffirmeerd. Water laat overtuigend zien dat de geschiedenis van het denken een worsteling behelst tussen affirmatie en een thalassofobisch indammen van water. Ten Bos haalt Sloterdijk aan om de affirmatieve levenshouding die tegenover water kan worden ingenomen te verduidelijken: ‘Wie duikt zegt ja en zoekt de verbinding, de deelname, het enthousiasme. Wie opduikt om adem te halen, zoekt de scheiding, de kritiek, misschien zelfs de distantie. Mensen zitten, als we Sloterdijk mogen geloven, altijd vast in deze ambivalentie’ (201). Het affirmeren van de disruptieve kracht van het water kan voortdurend op de klippen lopen en is kwetsbaar. Daarmee rijst de vraag hoe de affirmatieve kracht van waterig denken kan doordringen in de zaken die Ten Bos problematiseert, zoals ecologische kwetsbaarheden en de wetenschap. De lezer die verwacht concrete richtlijnen voor interventionistisch waterig denken aan te treffen, zal teleurgesteld worden. In de hydrologie en hydrodynamica is inderdaad, zoals ook Ten Bos betoogt, een sterke mate van erkenning van de grilligheid van water te vinden. Water laat zich volgens hydrologen niet zonder meer ‘vangen’ in een model en elke kwantitatieve beschrijving van water moet aan een zekere scepsis worden onderworpen. Daarbij moet wel worden opgemerkt dat deze erkenning beperkt kan blijven tot diegenen die water op wetenschappelijke wijze bestuderen. Beleidsmakers die harde beslissingen moeten nemen over de veiligheid van waterkeringen zullen minder snel geneigd zijn het vlietende karakter van water te omarmen. De vraag blijft niet alleen in hoeverre en hoe ruimte kan worden vrijgevochten voor het denken zodat het zich kan onderdompelen in het water, maar ook welke krachten een dergelijke onderdompeling belemmeren. Ten Bos levert een krachtig en erudiet pleidooi voor een instrumentarium dat gevestigde manieren van denken ter discussie kan stellen. Het komt er nu op aan dit instrumentarium los te laten op de wereld.

Can the Right of Necessity Be Both Personal and Political?

Review of: Alejandra Mancilla (2016) The Right of Necessity: Moral Cosmopolitanism and Global Poverty. London: Rowman and Littlefield International. 140 pp.

In The Right of Necessity: Moral Cosmopolitanism and Global Poverty, Alejandra Mancilla argues that agents whose basic rights to subsistence are not realised should be entitled to “take, use and/or occupy the material resources required to guarantee [their] self-preservation, or the means necessary to obtain the latter” (4). This right of necessity (RoN hereafter) is, according to Mancilla, a “concrete expression” of the basic right to those material provisions necessary for survival (70). When an economic order guarantees its members secure access to the content of their subsistence rights (food, water, shelter, etc.), the exercising of the RoN would be limited to rare emergency cases. But in a world such as ours, in which very many human beings experience severe and chronic deprivation, resort to the RoN would be far more common. In this sense, the RoN serves as a check on any system of property rights: if a socioeconomic regime does not create conditions within which the basic right to subsistence is fulfilled for all, then those whose rights remain unmet – or others acting on their behalf – are entitled to act to guarantee their survival. “Demanding otherwise from them would be unreasonable, as it would be irrational for them to accept”, according to Mancilla (68). The RoN is a Hohfeldian “privilege compounded by a claim against others (including the owners of the targeted property) not to interfere with the agent’s actions” (85 italics in original). Defining the RoN as a privilege means that those who act to secure their survival have no duty not to do so. Combining it with a duty held by others not to interfere with the legitimate exercising of the RoN strengthens a right that would otherwise be weak.

The principal audience for this argument is moral cosmopolitans: those who hold that all individual human beings are equally the ultimate units of moral concern. One of Mancilla’s general aims is to rebalance the conversation on cosmopolitanism and global poverty in favour of a focus on “what the needy may be morally permitted to do by themselves and for themselves to fulfil or satisfy their basic right to subsistence” (3). Such a shift is indeed sorely needed: most contributions to the global justice debate to date have focused on the duties and (in)action of the well-off, treating the global poor simply as passive recipients of aid or sympathy. Another sense in which Mancilla’s contribution is very welcome is the careful and considered historical recovery of the arguments for the RoN provided by Aquinas, Grotius, and Pufendorf. These accounts demonstrate that RoN has a rich but as yet under-recognised historical pedigree.

In general, Mancilla’s case for the RoN is compelling: I found little to disagree with in many of the arguments she offers. Issues remain, nevertheless. Here, I focus on three. The first two relate to the assumptions she makes; the third to the likely practical and political implications of her argument.

Feasible conditions

Mancilla makes four normative and two factual assumptions, upon which the rest of her case for the RoN relies. Her normative assumptions are moral cosmopolitanism, the existence of the basic right to subsistence, the acceptance of the institution of property, and belief that any reasonable system of property rights must satisfy everyone’s basic needs. I will not discuss Mancilla’s normative assumptions as I have no quarrel with them. Her factual assumptions are more controversial, however. The first is that “certain minimally favourable material and technological conditions hold at the global level, that make it not utopian but feasible to have everyone’s basic right to subsistence satisfied” (16).

The problem with this assumption is that the feasibility of the satisfaction of subsistence rights for all is not fully determined by ‘material and technological conditions’ alone. As John Rawls says, when it comes to a society ensuring that all of its members enjoy human rights, while “money is often essential”, “political culture” is “all-important” (Rawls 1999, 108-109). Rawls gives the examples of famines that occur as the result of political and institutional failure, as opposed to simple lack of food (1999, 109). He also refers to the difference that the position of women can have on population levels and the sustainability of the economy (Rawls 1999, 109-110). Attitudes about the status of women are often deeply embedded within cultural and religious practices, and not necessarily reducible to ‘material and technological conditions’.

Rawls’ comments on this topic are far from perfect or complete. In particular, he does not elaborate on the specific ways a regime can be burdened by unfavourable conditions, and the sense in which political culture is implicated in each of these ways. The general point is clear, however: in order to make the realisation of the right to subsistence truly feasible, a society would need to have a political culture that was hospitable to it. It is not clear that conditions globally can currently be characterised in this way (which is not to say that it can never be), even if one did accept that anything like a single global society existed. This takes us to the next problem.

A basic global economic structure

Mancilla’s second factual assumption is “that there is such a thing as a basic global economic structure of which most human beings take part” (16). I take the reason why she needs this assumption to be that it provides a single global entity which can be held responsible for global poverty. Mancilla follows Thomas Pogge in interpreting human rights as “direct moral claims against social institutions imposed on oneself” (73). However, the crucial question Pogge does not consider in great depth, according to Mancilla, is what those whose human rights are not fulfilled are entitled to do for themselves while their institutions are failing. Mancilla regards her defence of the RoN as offering an answer to this question.

There are two problems with Mancilla’s assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’, both of which suggest it is redundant. First, it is not at all clear that she needs it in order for the most striking implications of her argument to win through. Even if it was not the case that most human beings participated in a single economic order, the global poor would still presumably be able to exercise the RoN within their local, national, and regional settings. Indeed, all of the cases Mancilla cites as examples of when something close to the RoN has been invoked in the real world (the callamperos in Chile, for example, or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Brazil) are distinctly local in character (87-88).

The second problem is that, even if you accept Mancilla’s assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’, it does not follow from this that such a structure itself has the capacity to guarantee the subsistence rights of all. The reason for this is that a ‘structure’ is not necessarily an institutional agent – that is, a macro-level agent able to regulate relations amongst other sub-level agents in line with a given pattern or goal. The presence of capable institutional agents is necessary if individuals are to have secure access to the content of their subsistence (and other) rights. The paradigmatic example of such an institutional agent in our current world is the state, but capable global institutional agents need not be exact replicas. A number of global justice theorists – including Henry Shue, who Mancilla cites approvingly throughout the book – have persuasively argued that it is precisely the absence of capable institutional agents which helps to explain the present levels of global poverty and inequality (Ronzoni 2009; Scheffler 2008; Shue 1988).

If Mancilla believes that the current levels of global economic interaction and interdependence is equivalent to the existence of a set of global institutional agents capable of regulating relations between all individuals such that all enjoy the basic right to subsistence, then she is mistaken. Alternatively, if she holds that the right to subsistence can be realised in the absence of capable institutional agents, this would be mistaken too. Indeed, given that Mancilla herself accepts that basic rights generate “final duties” to “create conditions under which the legitimate exercise of the right of necessity by the chronically deprived simply disappears” (76), it is not clear that the assumption of a ‘basic global economic structure’ is doing any useful work in her account at all.

Practical and political implications

The final problem with Mancilla’s argument for the RoN which I will discuss relates to its practical and political implications. This has two dimensions: personal implications for the agent exercising the RoN, and political implications for wider society. On the personal level, one question Mancilla deals with is whether those invoking the RoN can use force if others interfere with the exercise of their right. Mancilla’s response is disappointing (87-88). First, she distinguishes between violence and resistance with no explanation of what this distinction consists in. Then, she simply rules out violence a priori with an approving reference to Pogge where there should be an argument. Finally, she gives three examples of real world cases where the RoN has been successfully claimed without resort to violence, presumably to show that such results are possible. But the question is not whether it is possible to successfully exercise the RoN non-violently, but whether non-violence is all that can ever be justified. Given the current scale of deprivation globally and the inevitability of the resistance from those whose property will become vulnerable to appropriation by the needy, a more nuanced discussion of the characteristics of violence (directed at what, for example?) and fuller defence of pacifism is necessary. Does Mancilla really wish to rule out any resort to violence even if peaceful resistance is itself met with obstinacy and force? Such a move would have the unfortunate implication of rendering the ANC’s campaign against Apartheid unjustified, for example. This takes us to the political dimension.

As Mancilla rightly emphasises throughout The Right of Necessity, the overall aim of moral cosmopolitanism must be the establishment of conditions within which all human beings enjoy secure access to the content of their basic subsistence (and other) rights. For this reason, her discussion of what she calls the “Remedy Worse Than Disease objection” – which suggests that accepting the RoN would have highly negative consequences for social order and lead to a worse state of affairs for all, including the poor – is very interesting (106-107). Mancilla’s response is twofold. First – and rightly, I think – she questions why the burden is placed on the needy to sacrifice their subsistence for the sake of the status quo. Second, she suggests that the exercising of the RoN may in fact spur the global wealthy to take steps to reform the global order in line with cosmopolitan aims. Mancilla concedes that this as an “empirical claim” (107) – the problem is that it seems an implausible one. The few examples of real-world cases where peaceful invocations of the RoN have led to semi-permanent social reform do not evidence her claim; they are striking precisely because they are atypical. While it may not lead to near-anarchy, as Mancilla’s interpretation of the objection assumes, the RoN may lead to the overall aim of moral cosmopolitanism being harder, as opposed to easier, to realise. The likely response of those in power must always be borne in mind when engaging in action which seeks to have wider political effects, especially when these effects involve cost for those with power. This is part of the reason why resistance takes the form of civil disobedience (e.g. non-violent, public, etc.) in some contexts (see King 1991), and why the justificatory bar for violence is so high (which is not to say that violence can never be justified, as Mancilla suggests). Without a more careful discussion of the likely political implications of the RoN, Mancilla has no basis to claim that it could bring us closer to the overall cosmopolitan aim. It looks just as – perhaps more – likely to do the opposite.

Despite the problems just noted, Alejandra Mancilla’s The Right of Necessity is a timely, well-argued and original addition to the literature on global justice in general, and moral cosmopolitanism in particular. The most significant contribution it makes is to shift attention to the agency of those typically considered the victims of injustice. The central question we are left with is a pertinent one: what if the actions necessary to secure immediate needs are in tension with the overall cosmopolitan aim?

Dialectics of Secular Revelation: Jameson’s Cognitive Mapping Aesthetic, Thirty Years On

Review of Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (2015) Cartographies of the Absolute. Alresford: Zero Books, 311 pp.

How do we, as the increasingly atomized individuals of capitalist societies, formulate a collective relationship to capital when conditions seem constantly to mitigate against such an effort? This is, perhaps, the central question of Western Marxism, a once vibrant tradition of critical thought, for which it has been claimed that the American literary critic Fredric Jameson today stands as the foremost living exemplar (Anderson 1998, 74). In Cartographies of the Absolute, Alberto Toscano & Jeff Kinkle take Jameson’s conceptual framework to be axiomatic, along with most of the political and philosophical foundation of Western Marxism; and while their intention is not to comment directly on Jameson’s hermeneutics, the book could nevertheless be understood as the single most sustained response, within the entire field of cultural analysis, to Jameson’s challenge, made at the conclusion of his famous essay on postmodernism, that “[t]he political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as a spatial scale” (1984, 92). In addition, then, to touching on a few of the book’s own unique contributions, in what follows I will be sketching an outline of a particular discursive tradition with which, I will argue, this book finds itself deeply enmeshed.

Referred to as both his most influential concept (Tally 1996, 399) and his least defined concept (Jameson 1992, viv), Jameson initially formulated the notion of cognitive mapping as a kind of metaphorical remedy to his metaphysical diagnosis of subjective disorientation under conditions of late capitalism — as an imperative to represent the hidden totality of class relations through the development of a new aesthetic form. Formulated, in part, as a kind of dialectical response to the epistemological relativism characteristic of intellectual trends in American academia at the time of writing in the mid-‘80’s, Jameson was also responding to formal preoccupations in the field of architecture, thus orienting much of his analysis to a study of the built environment, which he saw as the “privileged aesthetic language” of late capitalism, due to its “virtually unmediated relationship” to capital (1984, 79 and 56). In essence, Jameson’s project could be understood as a continuation of the basic problematic of Western Marxism, as inaugurated by Georg Lukács (1971), concerning the dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, the divisive symptoms of capitalism that result in social class divisions and, on the other, attempts to represent the a priori totality underlying those same processes.

If Toscano & Kinkle’s approach can be identified with Jameson, then it can also be counter-posed to the work of Bruno Latour, another highly influential yet very different type of thinker who likewise tends often to be preoccupied with metaphors drawn from cartography. Indeed, the opening chapter of their book puts forward a rather in-depth critique of Latour’s incapacity to comprehend the larger dynamics of capitalism from within the bounds of a methodology (derived in part from ethnography) that refuses to accept the a priori existence of any so-called “social explanations” (2005, 1) including, most notoriously, the existence of capitalism itself (1993, 173). Whereas Jameson’s cartographic epistemology is an attempt “to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system” (1984, 80), for Latour “[t]otality does not present itself as a fixed frame, as a constantly present context; it is obtained through a process of summing up, itself localized and perpetually restarted” (2006, NP). While it is perhaps understandable why Toscano & Kinkle would find Latour’s methodological commitment to the small-scale ill-suited given the scale of ambition in Cartographies of the Absolute, at the outset of the book their polemical stance against Latour seems to preempt the possibility of exploring more productive tensions in the dialectical relationship between different cartographic modes of thought. Whilst this opening polemic is not necessarily representative of the book as a whole, it does however demonstrate their scholasticist fealty to a particular type of hermeneutics. In conclusion, then, whilst their book is original — even, at times, idiosyncratic — in the way that they have selected their objects of study, I will argue that in terms of their methodology Toscano & Kinkle are, in fact, quite traditional.

Jameson first expanded upon his initial call to develop “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (1984, 89) at a famous conference on the topic of “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture” (Nelson & Grossberg 1988), and then in a book-length version of the postmodernism article in which he described the challenge of cognitive mapping in quasi-gnostic terms as a revelation of “the true economic and social form that governs experience” (Jameson 1991, 411). Jameson was, in effect, writing a kind of artistic manifesto avant la lèttre, calling for: the development of “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (1984, 58); the development of a pedagogical art-form, whose objective would be “[t]o teach, to move, to delight” (Nelson & Grossberg 1990, 347); but also, calling for experimentation at the formal level, instructing his readers to forget “all figures of maps and mapping” in order to “try to imagine something else” (Jameson 1991, 409). Thirty years later, then, Toscano & Kinkle have set out to assess the extent to which Jameson’s call has been answered, producing what amounts to a taxonomy of the “cartographic turn” in the arts of cinema, television, photography, and installation. Matching Jameson in terms of scope, interdisciplinarity and theoretical ambition, Toscano & Kinkle read these cultural artifacts “symptomatically” as material traces of a late capitalist world system in crisis. In separate chapters centered around the critically lauded cable series The Wire (’02-’08) as well as the now forgotten genre film Wolfen (’81), for example, Toscano & Kinkle read depictions of the decaying inner-city landscapes of Baltimore and New York City — both, respectively, around the period of a major financial crisis — as commentaries on what Marx called the “vampire-like” quality of capital.

Whilst Jameson was evocatively vague in his initial discussion of the cognitive mapping concept, he would go on to apply the term to describe his own method of cultural analysis, when, in an analysis of 1970s Hollywood ‘conspiracy films’, he stated that “in the intent to hypothesize, in the desire called cognitive mapping — therein lies the beginning of wisdom” (1992, 3). Jameson’s approach here was itself indebted to Louis Althusser’s technique of symptomatic reading — an exegetical approach to cultural analysis concerned with the “necessary invisible connection between the field of the visible and the field of the invisible” and the “psychological weakness of ‘vision’” (1970, 19) that was also influential in the field of film criticism in the 1970s. Believing capitalism, then, to be the ultimate referent and true ground of being, a kind of actually-existing metaphysics whose fundamental laws could be mapped, Jameson’s cognitive mapping method — the fundamental framework for Toscano & Kinkle’s whole approach — was therefore to render visible the noumenal economic base hidden in the cultural artifacts of the superstructure.

Referencing a 1928 letter to Henry Ford in which the Colombian poet José Eustasio Rivera claimed that, if rubber could speak “it would exhale the most accusing wail” (193), Toscano & Kinkle discuss, for instance, an approach that they refer to as “materialist prosopopoeia” (43) as a name for a cognitive mapping aesthetic that attempts to show “that the causes of ‘our’ social life [lie] elsewhere, in the processes of extraction, dispossession and subjugation that constitute imperialism and colonialism” (16), discussing, as exemplary, a piece by the British contemporary artist Steve McQueen entitled Gravesend, that uses the medium of video installation to portray the commodity chain of rare earth minerals in electronics manufacturing. While attempts at debunking the seeming ‘bargains’ of globalized capitalism has, as of recent times, become a kind of cause célèbre of liberal virtue — with campaigns for ethical consumerism attempting to bring a measure of transparency to the working conditions in Chinese smart-phone factories, and regulatory schemes for corporate social governance seeking, on paper at least, to redress the problem of conflict minerals — Toscano & Kinkle view the former as weak and ineffective symbolic actions that, in attempting to render commodity chains transparent, paradoxically represent “a new kind of opacity” (201). They are thus fascinated by attempts to render multinational global capitalism visible whilst at the same time being fundamentally suspicious of the contemporary discourses of ethical transparency.

In the same manner that Jameson performed symptomatic readings of 1970s Hollywood conspiracy films as another example of a cognitive mapping aesthetics, Toscano & Kinkle also survey a selection of Hollywood films from the 2010s addressing the global economic crash of 2008 in which they are much less interested in the quality of their narratives than they are concerned with decoding how, for example, in the filmic diegesis, “the inanity of built space (alternating between the triumphant banality of the glass skyscraper and the tawdry iteration of ‘luxury apartments’ and sundry cubbyholes) are ‘realistically’ depicted in these films” (169). According to Georg Lukács — the former theologian, who, as we have seen, may be thought of as a cornerstone in the Western Marxist hermeneutical framework — it is precisely at these moments of transition and crisis that the fundamental gap between the false appearance of things and their underlying reality becomes apparent. While Toscano & Kinkle draw from this framework when they speak of “crisis [as] a… synthetic rupture, potentially rendering visible the unity between seemingly disparate domains” (79), they are also critical of what we might call the post-industrial sublime, as for example represented in the photography of Lewis Baltz or Edward Burtynsky, which depict the effects late capitalism has on the built environment and on landscapes. Here, by contrast, they celebrate the works of Allan Sekula, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as those of Harun Faroki, visual artists, both of whom frame and narrativize their own work in critical essays that Toscano & Kinkle celebrate as attempts to rethink visual imagery as indexes of the machinic operations of global-spanning logistical processes — as opposed to naïvely realist modalities of representation.

While Toscano & Kinkle do speak of an idealized “realism shorn of didacticism” (193), as with Jameson’s original concept, their approach to aesthetics seems to value the pedagogical above all else. In so doing they might be said to re-stage the same relationship of inequality between those who know and those who passively absorb an image, a notion of passive spectatorship that Jacques Rancière (2009) associates with Guy Debord — another Western Marxist figure who stands behind Jameson and Toscano & Kinkle, with Kinkle having, in fact, written his PhD on Debord. Against the ideal of critical art that he identifies with Debord — to “turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation” through “build[ing] awareness of the mechanisms of domination” (2009[2004], 45) — Rancière advocates an approach that appreciates the capacity of art to open up a world of phenomenological experience that reveals the fundamental contingency of how the sensible world is distributed, a political promise that he argues may be contained with even the most self-secluding, and seemingly apolitical, of artworks. Embracing polemics over ambivalence, Toscano & Kinkle’s emphasis on the role of theory in producing univocal symptomatic readings — as well as in their preference for ‘critical’ artists— seems to lead to the conclusion that the aesthetic of cognitive mapping that Jameson had called for some thirty years previously, today finds its realization not in the field of aesthetics so much as in the interpretation of aesthetics in line with the same old framework that had called for the development of a new form of aesthetics in the first place. Within that framework, Jameson had initially conceptualized cognitive mapping as a kind of antidote to his famous postmodern diagnosis of subjective dislocation, in which he announced “a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by an equivalent mutation in the subject” (Jameson 1984, 80). Perhaps then, when, in their conclusion — in spite of the many postmodern equivocations that they, like Jameson, have made regarding the fundamental partiality of perspective —Toscano & Kinkle speak wistfully of a future “politics with a totalising impetus” (241), the ultimate forebear of this call to critical awareness in face of unimaginable complexity might be understood less in terms of Western Marxism than of Kant’s third critique, according to which it is in the ultimate inadequacy of representation, in cartography’s very failure to systematically divide the boundlessness of the absolute, that reason becomes intuitively palpable and, through this critical act, that the individual comes to make sense of her true location in the world.