Midterm Review (HUM415)

Though we began the semester with a few readings devoted to the key terms “culture” and “periodization” these will not be on the midterm. The material to be covered in the exam begins with the Communist Manifesto, which, contrary to the cliches of anti-communism, is most significant for its thumbnail sketch of the rise of global capitalism. The CM offers a number of insights, including a model of historical development which is rooted in the Hegelian dialectic– the so-called clash of opposites or, in an oversimplified formulation, thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The main issue for us, however, lies in a principle of dynamism according to which the development of capitalist relations leads to both the massive growth of productive power and chronic, profound social instability. The relative stasis of the feudalist mode of production, for example, gives way to a social landscape marked by unceasing technological innovation and repeated crises. In the long term, capital’s tendency to consolidate also produces a sharp distinction between the owners of capital– the bourgeoisie– and those whose lives depend on their ability to sell themselves and their capacity for labor– the proletariat. In a contemporary setting, the overwhelming proportion of people are proletarians– whether or not they work with their hands– simply because they do not possess any means of production.

Ha-Joon Chang picks up on this thread, juxtaposing the “official” history of capitalism with its realities. According to the official story–a fable of sorts, with a strong moral component– capital arises almost by reflex. The wealthiest (and implicitly “free-est”) societies chose capitalism and were rewarded many times over for their prescience. The adoption of “Free Market” policies such as the lowering of trade barriers (“trade liberalization”) facilitated the circulation of capital and commodities, enriching those nations. If the so-called Developing World (what used to be called the Third World) would only slip into Thomas Friedman’s “golden straight-jacket” they too, would be destined for affluence and increased political liberties.

Chang carefully deflates this narrative, pointing out that the most-developed national economies (i.e. the G-7) were in fact profoundly protectionist in their basic economic orientation. As the fastest-growing economy in the world during the late 19th and early 20th century, for instance, the US was one of the most protectionist nations, raising tariffs which, until WWI, “were the highest of any country in the world” (54). The issue of growth is also important in relation to the performance of developing nations’ economies in light of the fact that, generally speaking, the most sustained periods of growth occurred precisely when “golden straightjacket” policies were NOT in place.

Chang makes several other significant points in the assigned chapters, and a basic familiarity with them would be helpful to you. Among them we should not forget the contradiction of the claim that the spread of capitalism was a relatively benign affair, one which always and inevitably led to greater political liberties. We have only to examine China’s introduction to global capitalism so see the instrumental use of (military, diplomatic) violence to drag a weaker nation into the capitalist system: the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, the bombardment of coastal cities, repeated invasions by various European powers (not forgetting the US role in all this, particularly under the rubric of the Open Door policy).

Given that the main focus of this course is the darker side of global capitalism, our first set of fictional texts tend to focus on the relationship between free and criminal enterprise, licit and shadow economies. It is a given by this time, I hope, that these two expressions of the profit motive simply represent different yet indispensable aspects of one another. In other words, the accumulation of capital by illegal means is deeply implicated in the accumulation of capital by legal means. Consider the drug trade, which in 2003

generated an estimated 321.6 billion dollars…. It constitues 0.9% of the world’s GDP, which is higher than 88% of countries in the world in the same year


Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said he has seen evidence that the proceeds of organised crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks on the brink of collapse [in 2008]. He said that a majority of the $352bn (£216bn) of drugs profits was absorbed into the economic system as a result.

The connections between crime and commerce, however, extend beyond a functional– even unavoidable– overlap between narco-capitalism and high finance. The War on Drugs employs millions of people: prison guards, bureaucrats, workers for companies which produce surveillance technology, lab technicians contracted to test urine for traces of drugs, etc., etc.– the list is potentially quite long. In other words, even the effort to police drugs and people who consume them– necessitated by the criminalization of specific forms of behavior– is something of a “business” (especially as the State continues to privatize its basic functions).

Yet also recall the importance of the notion of affect (not effect)– the psychological conditioning of individuals and whole populations the occurs by virtue of the pressures, expectations, and “common sense” of their socio-cultural context. The argument advanced implicitly in films such as The Big Combo, American Gangster, and Glengarry, Glen Ross is that business (i.e. capitalism) produces subjects attuned to its dictates, whose very interiority– their feelings, their desires, their impulses, their sense of self-identity– are adapted to the capitalist environment.

For example, look at the sequence from 9 m 56 s to about 12 m in The Big Combo:

Or consider this clip from Glengarry, Glen Ross:

Or this partial clip (we miss out on Frank returning to finish his breakfast) from American Gangster:

The Goodbye Kiss

I’ve already given you my notes on The Goodbye Kiss and I don’t have all that much to add. You can find those notes on this blog. It is important, however, to note that the political context for The Goodbye Kiss lies in the world-wide insurgencies of the late 1960s and 1970s. The rise of neoliberalism comes out of that political ferment, and is in some ways a response to it, though ultimately the new situation in Italy is the outcome of a “return” to laissez-faire economics in the aftermath of the failure of the much vaunted “Red Decade.” You do not need to know anything about Operation Gladio– though the partial information we have on NATO’s “secret armies” and their abuse sheds light on the violence of Italy’s “years of lead.”

Regarding Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. As was said in lecture (also posted in audio file format on this blog) Klein’s basic critical metaphor lies with the unconscionable project by Dr. Ewen Cameron to turn his test subjects into “blank slates” through the use of various procedures including shock therapy, sensory deprivation, etc. (The CIA was impressed by Cameron’s efforts and indeed funded his research in part, though Cameron’s greatest influence came with the creation of the so-called Kubark manual on torture and interrogation techniques. Such methods continue to be used by the US government and its proxies.) For Klein, the basic dynamic of Shock Therapy is the exploitation of a crisis in order to implement neoliberal economic policies. Again, I spoke in some detail about this during lecture. More importantly, her account of various crises provides us with context for Pelevin’s sci-fi satire of post-Soviet Russia.

The core of Homo Zapiens lies in chapter 7. There are a host of significant terms which help us to think about the character of social reality under “advanced” or consumer capitalism. The key here is ideology, a term that we will continue to discuss in the weeks to come. For the purposes of our interpretation of HZ we focused on the notions of reification, alienation, and commodity fetishism. These terms are defined in the slide presentation posted on this blog. (And the first of them, reification, may also be usefully conceived of in relation to The Matrix.) As with the concept of affect, HZ inquires into the ways that our internal lives– our very identities– are formed by market relations. HZ goes beyond the notion of affect, however, in explicitly evoking a fully reified social sphere. The deformation of social reality has progressed to such a degree that it is no longer clear that there is any escape from this false situation. If our subjectivity has been reduced to anal-oral wow-impulses, if Pelevin’s characters have become type 2 subjects, then it appears that the world is now inhabited by consumer zombies. In this context, democracy, as such, ceases to exist.

The “keyest” of all key concepts, of course, is neoliberalism. As of two weeks ago, some students were convinced that it had something to do with the Democratic party in the US. This, obviously, is not the case. Liberalism in this sense pertains to economy rather than politics– though, yes, these two realms are inseparable. US Americans are among the only people in the world to ignore Liberalism’s economic valence. The rest of the world, by and large, understands that contemporary US conservatives owe their political ideals as much to liberalism as do “progressives,” “blue dogs,” et al.

Neoliberalism, very significantly, is a bit retro, a bit nostalgic. This is what the “neo” indicates. It is an effort to return to a perceived prior condition. Any “neo,” however, is not the same as what happened or existed in the past. It is a new iteration. The basic formula, D-L-P, is one way of thinking about neoliberalism. There is also Klein’s “trifecta.” In a nutshell neoliberalism holds that the solution to all human challenges emanates from the market. The Market, then, in this view, is a kind of divine mechanism regulating all human affairs, pure in its logic. Decisions which at one time were seen (correctly) to be the concern of political contestation become matters of mere technocratic expertise. In the neoliberal world citizens are inferior to consumers. Profitability takes precedence over egalitarianism. Ultimately, as with Pelevin, freedom devolves into choice.

If you want to see how far down the rabbit hole goes, you can always go to the Free Books page of this blog and download the pdf file of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction to Neoliberalism.

Review the lecture audio files. Read those texts you’ve not yet read. Revisit chapter 7 if HZ. Meet with classmates to study. Try some free-writing on the concepts mentioned above. If you’ve kept up with the work and attended class regularly, you should have no problem doing well on the midterm.