Friday, May 13, 2016

Make America Fake Again!

Immaterial labor, unconventional oil, multi-level marketing, fictitious capital, negative interest rates, counterfeit politics...

You've really got to read the Italian Autonomist Marxists -- people like Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato -- if you want to get a handle on what's up with the Donald Trump shtick. More precisely, cultural theorists have used the Automists' concept of immaterial labor to analyze the appeal of Trump's reality game show, The Apprentice. The show is a metaphor for the man, the campaign and the distinctive "virtuoso" labor of neoliberal capitalism.

What it all boils down to is the blurring of the boundaries between work and entertainment; employment, unemployment and precarious under-employment; advertising, entertainment, news and education (of a sort). In this twilight "workplayce," it is the image of competitive personality -- rather than any substantive competence -- that succeeds. Doing the job -- or any job at all -- is secondary to projecting that image. The pinnacle of success is celebrity.

I have to confess that I have never watched a single episode of The Apprentice. For that matter, I have never watched a single episode of any TV "reality" show. I don't feel like I have missed much. However, there are people who build their dreams and aspirations around "brandom" -- brand fandom. This is nothing new, just more pervasive.

What I'm getting at here is that Trump's nomination is no anomaly. It's the new normal personified.

Did I mention the blurred boundaries between work and entertainment? Writing blog posts is my entertainment. I am writing this "at work" (although not on work time). In isolation, the critique of immaterial labor is unsatisfying because it seems to lead into a hall of mirrors made of signifiers and subjectivities. Where is the substantive anchor? Isn't there some universal unit in which value can be evaluated?

It helps to recall the sense in which the seemingly new has been there all along. In his notes on James Mill, Marx observed the way that debt transforms the human personality into a commodity:
Credit is the economic judgment on the morality of a man. In credit, the man himself, instead of metal or paper, has become the mediator of exchange, not however as a man, but as the mode of existence of capital and interest. The medium of exchange, therefore, has certainly returned out of its material form and been put back in man, but only because the man himself has been put outside himself and has himself assumed a material form. Within the credit relationship, it is not the case that money is transcended in man, but that man himself is turned into money, or money is incorporated in him. Human individuality, human morality itself, has become both an object of commerce and the material in which money exists.
It is difficult to avoid a moral judgment of the morality implied in the human personality becoming an object of commerce. However, that is just the kind of restraint needed to arrive at an objective evaluation of what is happening. Regardless of whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, it is an historical process and any transcendence of it will also entail an historical process, not a moral judgment.

Criticisms of Donald Trump's policy positions or of his supporters' alleged racism or xenophobia are incidental, if not irrelevant. In crucial respects, Trump is indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders. He is a celebrity projecting "larger than life" personality traits that have become an object of commerce. Clinton's or Sanders's personalities and what they stand for may be more appealing to particular market segments, but... it all comes down to what was once provocatively referred to as "The Selling of the President."

But it is not just a matter of sovereign citizens acting in their capacity as sovereign consumers expressing their presidential brand preferences. Those brands are counterfeit, as are the debtor/citizen/consumers electing them!
Since, owing to this completely nominal existence of money, counterfeiting cannot be undertaken by man in any other material than his own person, he has to make himself into counterfeit coin, obtain credit by stealth, by lying, etc., and this credit relationship – both on the part of the man who trusts and of the man who needs trust – becomes an object of commerce, an object of mutual deception and misuse. Here it is also glaringly evident that distrust is the basis of economic trust; distrustful calculation whether credit ought to be given or not; spying into the secrets of the private life, etc., of the one seeking credit; the disclosure of temporary straits in order to overthrow a rival by a sudden shattering of his credit, etc. The whole system of bankruptcy, spurious enterprises, etc.... As regards government loans, the state occupies exactly the same place as the man does in the earlier example.... In the game with government securities it is seen how the state has become the plaything of businessmen, etc.
In other words, phoniness is a large part of Trump's appeal to his supporters -- as it is to the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. None of it will restore "the American Dream" or "the middle class." Presidential politics is part of the problem, not the solution.

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