bram ieven

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Survival Capitalism / Surviving Capitalism (Some Notes)

During the past year I have been working around the concept of survival. The ideas came to me in the course of a project I collaborated on with a couple of friends and colleagues and quickly took on a life of its own. My question was: how and why is survival a concept we should be working with in trying to think through the current conjuncture of post-democracy and neoliberal capitalism?

The reason why I started thinking about survival is because I was dissatisfied with the term neoliberalism, which to my mind remains too general and lacks a certain political force (i.e. it’s not possible to rework neoliberalism into a concept that can form the core of a political program or instigate political agency, and that’s a problem for me). Although neoliberalism has some analytical advantages – referring us back to the liberal tradition and indicating that this tradition was reinvented and re-implemented during the nineteen eighties – it still remains a little vague and stationary. Its history is the history of a movement, not a concept. But this movement, I would argue, is shaped by a concept or a constellation of concepts. Survival is one of the concepts that played an instrumental role in shaping the political program of liberalism and neoliberalism since the last quarter of the 19th century.

So I started researching the origin of that concept and its economic and political ramifications. I began with what was most familiar to me: Naomi Klein’s contemporary classic The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In this book she analyzes the rise of the ‘disaster capitalism complex’, which she says is on a par with the rise of communication technology during the 1990s. In other words, disaster has become a technique for capitalism – i.e. businesses, banks, and states – to develop and advance capitalism over the world. For Klein, disaster is a name she uses for a particular technique of the sort of capitalism and international government that is normally called neoliberalism. But like me, she believes this concept is too general; in this case because “ideology is a shape shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities.” (The Shock Doctrine 17) Disaster capitalism is a better name, focusing on one specific but pivotal trend within neoliberalism.

Leaving aside the prelude (or prototype, or test-run, or) to disaster capitalism (Chili, which forms the core of the first two chapters of Klein’s book), she distinguishes two trends in contemporary disaster capitalism - two trends that interact. First, the government privatizes and outsources a number of facilities that it will need once disaster breaks out (e.g, military operations, sanitary facilities, police apparatus etc.). Once this has been done, a shock doctrine strategy is put to work: a disaster takes place and everyone is shocked, and we are all forced to rely on the private companies to clean up the mess, which creates enormous opportunities for certain businesses – but only because the market has first been privatized, opened up for these private companies.  Klein on the shock doctrine:

This is how the shock doctrine works: the original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect. (20)

I am struck by the ‘softening up’ metaphor. More appropriate, it would seem to me, is to talk about a certain ‘survival mode’ that seems to lie at the heart of the way we deal with economy and politics (i.e. capitalism). This survival mode seems to be much more flexible, much more self-induced than Klein’s idea of a softening up of people due to torture or a disaster capitalism complex. By inserting a ‘survival mode’ into the cultural framework (ideology?) of capitalism.

This idea of a survival mode within capitalism, upon its turn, brings to mind Jameson’s well-known claim that “someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” (“Future City”, New Left Review) The enormous amount of disaster movies and post-apocalyptic takes (from Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and McCarthy’s The Road to  Shyamalan’s The Happening and Kripke’s tv-series Revolution), as well as so-called ‘preppers’ and endless television marathons following these preppers, just goes to who show how obsessed we’ve become with surviving. We’re either surviving within capitalism, or, if capitalism fails, we’ll have to survive in an unknown, brutal state of nature, seems to be the message. Either way, survival and the way we think about survival (inside and outside capitalism) seem to be at the core of how we think about capitalism and politics these days.

But we can easily turn this around. In a text published on Alternet.org earlier this year, Noam Chomsky asks: “can civilization survive capitalism?” Mirroring the 1960s slogan of ‘really existing socialism’, he describes the current democracies as ‘really existing capitalist democracies’ (RECD) and states: ‘it seems unlikely that civilization can survive RECD and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it.’

The problem with all of these uses of survival, however, is their implicit assumption that survival is necessarily something negative; a challenge that is presented to us, and tat forces us to make do with less or in more challenging, more austere circumstances. Thus, this approach of survival only gives credit to the negative and destructive aspects of the concept. That is not at all surprising; to the contrary, it is telling of how contemporary capitalism deals with survival. This is what I would call survival capitalism.

What I am trying to do, however, is to give the concept of survival a more positive constructive role. In the past, survival has had this more positive ring to it, such as when it was said that ‘the soul survives the body’ (cf. Plato’s Phaedo). If we focus on the more positive aspects of survival, could it then perhaps become the starting point for a renewed form of political agency? In other words, if we take into account the negative aspects of survival and the way these are a central part of our relation to capitalism today, and we then bring in the positive aspects, could this lead to a positive anti-capitalist politics?

To answer this question, we need to look more closely at the history of survival in relation to capitalism and society. For the fact is that survival was introduced by a economically liberal and politically conservative school of thought during the last quarter of the 19th century not, as we might have expected, as a negative concept, but as a positive, productive concept. This is the school of social Darwinism, which adopted the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (Spencer) and applied it to social, political and economic issues. So to articulate a positive concept of survival we first need to analyze this tradition and distinguish between this pro-capitalist power-laden concept of survival of the fittest, and the productive and anti-capitalist concept of surviving (or: surviving capitalism). In short: we will need to make a distinction between survival capitalism and surviving capitalism.

For Darwin ‘survival of the fittest’, which he only started using in the fifth edition of The origin of species, was a metaphorical and unscientific description for ‘natural selection’. Though powerful as a metaphor, it did not adequately describe the scientific point he was trying to make. But that should come as no surprise. The metaphorical phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined by the social conservative Herbert Spencer to adapt Darwin’s theory for social and political goals. 

As a metaphor, it was more pliable, more adaptable, and thus, ironically perhaps, it survived and became the slogan for Darwin’s theory of evolution. What happened in actual effect, was that the much more aggressive ‘survival of the fittest’ became a slogan or order-word (Deleuze and Guattari’s mot d’ordre): it at one and the same time shaped the way that we think of evolution, as a brutal and aggressive attempt for survival and a struggle for power, and by adapting this evolutionary theory to an economic system like capitalism it naturalized capitalism, suggesting that capitalism is the normal state of being, the only true and scientifically viable economic and political model with self-interest and the struggle for power as its guiding thread. This idea of a struggle for survival was more often used in a political and an economic context than it was used in an evolutionary context. And so social Darwinism begins, as a prelude to neoliberalism perhaps.

To be continued.