[Left: Roman Cieslewicz, Kafka, The Trial, lithograph, 1964]
It feels like this year is ending in a shuffle of paperwork. An interminable meeting.
A trial, Kafka-esque.
Maybe it's just that the intensity of direct action has subsided, that police surveillance and disciplinary dossiers have begun to weigh heavily upon the spirit, that legal procedures against my comrades and me have become suffocating. Maybe it's the immobilizing field of endless bureaucratic negotiations, and cynical politiking in which we take action. The synchronic brick wall.
Whatever it may be, it's hard to shake the feeling that the harder we push against the increasing securitization of every aspect of our lives in California, Sussex, Puerto Rico -- like stiff-limbed, blood-drained insects trying to fight off the necrosis in our limbs by re-learning how to wiggle our antennae ever so slightly -- the more entangled we become in this spider's web of capital and its ruthless cycles of primitive accumulation. A victory for education in Sacramento turns welfare families out on the street. Fee increases for everyone are attached to financial aid packages for a select few. The logic is zero sum.
Maybe it's this feeling of being affectively drained at the end of a very long year that draws me to the recent media firestorm over a recent spate of suicides at the Shenzhen megafactory of Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, Foxconn. The megafactory employs and houses over 300,000 workers. The company is the exclusive contractor for key components of Apple's iPhone and iPads. Just today, Apple made other headlines: its market cap surpassed that of Microsoft, making it the world's largest tech company and the biggest player on the NYSE after ExxonMobil. Labor groups are calling some of Foxconn's labor practices into question, the "iron discipline" exercised over factory workers, which, among other things, prevents workers from carrying a cell phone on the job and from speaking with one another at all while working eight hour shifts on a factory line. In order to maximize profit rates and provide cheap iPhones to consumers in advanced capitalist countries, megafactories in China cut social ties between workers while they work. The conversation that you have with a friend on your phone today and the feeling of social connectedness that you acquire by paging through mobile updates on Facebook is directly linked to the severing of human speech and social dissolution in a factory somewhere in Shenzhen. Lest anyone feel left out of this process of mutually assured social death, LG, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard all outsource to the factory in question, and your cellphone probably contains minerals that are the product of a decades long civil war in the Congo.
In my own view, the most urgent contemporary political problem is integrating and theoretically grasping the tension between primitive accumulation and the spectacle. The project of specifying this new strategic field of the image under-girds much of the thought that I've been trying to articulate on dystopolitik over the years. This problematic originates with Guy Debord:
"Just as the logic of the commodity reigns over the capitalists' competing ambitions, or the logic of war always dominates the frequent modifications of weaponry, so the harsh logic of the spectacle controls the abundant diversity of media extravagances." (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, p. 7)But far from viewing this new spectacular form of social domination as all-powerful, I tend towards the view that it is strategically quite weak and therefore vulnerable to both attack and criticism. In the succinct and insightful words of Gopal Balakrishnan, "Debord also considered the possibility that the waning of any collective experience of history might have punishing consequences for the stage managers of this new order themselves. The spectacular mediation of the political sphere has resulted in the partial de-realization of what once could be called 'objective' strategic interests" ("States of War" NLR 36, Nov-Dec 2005).
In the present instance, we are confronted by one of those purely spectacular moments in which a global corporation's success story happens to coincide with that of ten recent suicides in the factory which made that success possible. In other words, we are confronted with a moment in which media spectacle and primitive accumulation are partially integrated. Does such a narrative collision have the ability to move us, and if it did what would we be moved to do about it? Is narrative and pathos even the proper register to think about strategic assaults on the overlap of spectacle and primitive accumulation? How do most educated people understand the social totality of exploitation of all workers, everywhere in this global economy except through these spectacular sound bytes that happen to coincide for a moment on our screens? How could a boycott of any corporation (such as those being called for by activists) ever stop the systemic forces compelling global electronics manufacturers to maximize their profit?
If our talking heads are dealing with this as an issue of ethical consumption, you may not be so surprised to find out that Chinese talking heads have been portraying the spate of suicides in a "tragic" register.
The video is quite dramatic, something no American or European networks would ever air. But what does this spectacular catharsis mean for those in China who may have watched it? How do we watch it?
The video contains stories of people who preferred not to continue working. Preferred not to continue consuming the spectacle. Preferred not to continue living. The reporter informs us that the 7th suicide victim, Lu Xin, liked to listen to Lady Gaga and wanted to become a pop star. The 8th victim, Zu Chengmin dreamed of becoming a supermodel. Both were 24 years old. An "investigative report" notes that "when they are controlling the machines, the machines are controlling them too: The innocence of youth is slowly ground away by the monotonous rhythms of the machines." An understated assessment of the effects of modern life on youth if there ever was one. These deaths could be considered a small-scale, low-level death strike, which is a constant in all modern societies. But why are ten deaths in a factory housing over 300,000 people getting so much attention?
[Below: Drawings by F. Kafka]
Terry Guo, chairman of Foxconn had this to say about the suicides in a public statement: "I think that you should look closely into the Chinese and international rates of statistics. According to experts, once a regional GDP per capita reaches $3,000 year then these incidents tend to happen. We have 540,000 employees in our company, and according to experts, the suicidal rate is within the normal range."
Indeed, the study of suicide was one of the most important phenomena for establishing the legitimacy of sociology with the publication of Durkheim's Le suicide in 1897. Durkheim found that there were observable patterns that transcended individual psychological make ups. Today, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death around the globe. In the US, suicides outnumber homicides nearly 2 to 1. China, India and Japan account for over 40% of all suicides. Suicide is very much a measurable part of modern societies, but is no less spectacular for all that.
In my own view, Michel Foucault has the best critical gloss on the subject that I've read:
It is upon life, now and over the whole course of its sequence, that power establishes its grip. Death is, in this case, a limit, a moment which escapes this grip of power; death becomes the most secret and most "private" point of existence. It is not so surprising that suicide -- previously a crime inasmuch as it was a way of usurping the power over death which the sovereign, whether of the here-and-now or the hereafter, had the sole right to exercise -- would become over the course of the nineteenth century one of the first conducts to enter the field of sociological analysis. Suicide demonstrates the individual and private prerogative to die on the frontiers and within the interstices of a power exercised upon life. This determination to die -- so atypical and yet so regular, so consistent in its manifestations, and by consequence, so inexplicable in terms of particularities or personal mishaps -- was one of the first wonders of societies in which political power had come to give itself the task of managing life. (Volonté de savoir, 182, translation mine).Suicide could, in this sense, be considered one of the first spectacles -- or the primal scene -- of the era of "bio-power." For Foucault, this term marks a threshold in the history of States and capital between classical practices and notions of the sovereign right over life and death and the moment in which social and political-economic forces begin to demand that governments manage and shape a scientifically understood and demographically measurable biological life of populations and individuals. Much ink has been spilled over this term "bio-power" not to mention the "history of sexuality" in which it is found, and I think both concepts have become mostly conceptually vacuous creatures of the publishing industry. No one is tracing genealogies of the institutions Foucault was talking about -- elementary and secondary schools, barracks, factory floors, prisons, psychiatric institutions -- nor has anyone (with the exception of Robin Blackburn's study Banking on Death) done a comprehensive and integrative history of the political practices and economic metrics Foucault cites -- birth rates, longevity, public health, housing, migration, demography, social Darwinism and sociology more generally. These are the institutions forming the pivot of what he calls the modern dispositif of sexuality. Foucault himself never finished the project and his remarks are suggestive at best; however, his lectures at Collège de France are a good starting place for anyone ambitious enough to pick up these tattered genealogies and make something of them. It is unfortunate that a buzzword like "Bio-power" -- like "panopticism" and "epistemological breaks" before it -- is all that anyone takes away from this period of Foucault's thought. He is raising much more fundamental questions: how is it that at the very moment of the establishment of Western democratic states with an imperative to guarantee particular social benefits and the welfare of their populations these same states start massacring the populations of one another? How does a welfare state rationalize nuclear weapons? In his lectures from 1978-79, Foucault ultimately abandons the concept of "biopolitics" altogether and shifts into a genealogy of neoliberalism. He thus concludes his attempt at providing an "analytics of power" with a return to political economy. Subsequent lectures begin to elaborate the themes of an ethical care of the self, which would later appear in volumes II and III of History of Sexuality.
At any rate, we need to continue to think about the relationship between spectacle and primitive accumulation so as to elaborate a more sophisticated way of understanding and strategically opposing this strange new form of social power in which we find ourselves caught. We must defend what is left of the social safety net, but this fight will fail as the threat of sovereign debt defaults and economic crises continue to shrink the tax base and provide cover for austerity measures. In an spectacle that has lost its sense of history, it may be advantageous to abandon the spatial politics of a physical strike (or occupation of University spaces) or to use these spaces as a means of elaborating forms of resistance that would take place in the register of Time.
Suicide is a symptomatic form of preferring not to. Of preferring not to have one's biological existence subject to the logics of capital accumulation. It is perfectly incorporable into a media spectacle and not -- except perhaps in the case of self-immolating monks -- a form political resistance. How do we elaborate different forms of "preferring not to" that aren't so escapist? How do we turn "preferring not to" into an assault manoeuvre?