All posts by David Scott

How an Expanded Conception of Capitalism Requires us to Move Political Struggles to Unexpected Spaces

Attracting a large audience, political theorist Nancy Fraser visited Stockholm a couple of days ago to present her view of a socialism for the 21st century. However, the talk was not only about socialism but also about its antagonist, capitalism, which, according to Fraser, must be subjected to a more refined analysis in order for a credible socialist alternative to be formulated. Current analyses of capitalism, Fraser argues, are inadequate as it is stuck in the Marxist notion of capitalism as an economic system. Rather, for this system to even function, it is dependent on a range of non-economic conditions. Here, the list of preconditions provided by Fraser is long; it is about the social reproduction so often emphasized by feminist theorists, including the unpaid work in the confines of the family, the exploitation of “cheap gifts” from nature such as raw material and energy, public goods provided by states, such as infrastructure, judicial protections for property rights and the access to policing measures. These very conditions of possibility for capitalism must be incorporated into an analysis of capitalism as well as in the critique against it.

As I listen to Fraser’s talk, I start to think of what the consequences of this expanded conception of capitalism has for political struggle. As I interpret her, this must mean moving political struggles to new spaces and creating new political frontiers of struggle. One precondition for capitalism, mentioned by Fraser, is infrastructure. Here, we can think of the transporting possibilities in the form of roads and railways so important for the transport of material. It can also mean the financial infrastructure needed to move money with a single push on a button. However, as I sit there, bracing myself for a tedious ride home on the subway, I realize that there is something about the very infrastructure of modern cities that provides the perfect precondition for capitalism: its ability to direct and discipline flows.

As someone not being used to live in a big city, I have become fascinated by travelling in local traffic to and from work every day. Taking the subway has taught me something about human disciplining. Although living in a metropolis, people behave in a predictable way: they stand quietly at the platform and wait for the subway, enter it and endure the often unpleasant experience of standing in a crowded car, and in the station they follow the flows to the next subway train, standing in line in long escalators. Although people sometimes walk slowly, sometimes run, the behavior is remarkably stable: you just go with the flow to your end destination where you sit down and work. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari1 would perhaps call this “the striation of space”, that is, the ordering of space so that speed can be restricted and circulation regulated. This is an important precondition for capitalism. In the words of human geographer Mekonnen Tesfahuney and political scientist Magnus Dahlstedt:

Power and control over different flows (capital, commodities, services and people), on various geographical scales, have a crucial function in capitalist economies and states. The capitalist economy requires complex and wide-ranging infrastructures of planning, coordination and execution, in the assembly, circulation and distribution of materials, commodities and capital in time-space. Accumulation would be practically impossible without such infrastructure.2

Thus, the transport system of big cities is a perfect example of what Fraser calls the preconditions for capitalism as it directs and disciplines flows, transporting people from place to place, ensuring that they can do their work as good citizens in a capitalist economy. In this way, the struggle against capitalism must move its efforts to these spaces that work as preconditions for capitalism. In the case of infrastructure, it means disrupting the way that large cities are planned to facilitate the flows that are so important for the functioning of capitalism, and imagine spaces that do not serve the interests of capital accumulation. Although a difficult task, Fraser shows that an expanded conception of capitalism, which I have tried to use as an analytical frame here, forces us to exercise our struggles on different fronts, even during the practice of the most mundane tasks in daily life.

  1. Deleuze, G & Guattari, F (2013 [1987]). A thousand plateaus. New York: Bloomsbury.
  2. Tesfahuney, M. & Dahlstedt, M. Maze of camps: (Im)mobilities, racism and spaces of exception, (p. 179) in Holmgren Troy, M. & Wennö, E. (Ed.) (2008). Space, Haunting, Discourse. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Beyond Local Self-organization: A Call for a Reinvigorated Defense of Liberal Democratic Institutions

In times of the social and economic injustice, environmental degradation and fascist upheavals, it is easy to forget the resistance and mobilization this development nourishes. In the face of systemic injustices, which often entail the dominance of neoliberal ideals of economic growth and the exclusion of values such as solidarity and community, we can observe the growth of new forms of popular mobilization, such as self-sufficient collectives on the Portuguese countryside1 and self-organized camps employing direct democracy on the stairs of Wall Street.

There is a romantic shimmer around these popular projects, glorified by both journalists and academics who see an amazing renewal of democracy, whether they refer to the projects mentioned above, Chavista communes in Venezuela or revolutionary villages in Zapatista territory in Mexico. Please do not misunderstand me now; there is something politically significant about self-organized popular mobilization, but it also shows what is believed to be possible to challenge and change in an era of economic, social, ecological and political injustice. Therefore, I want to discuss why these forms of resistance risk not being a radical demand for change, but instead something that not challenges status quo. I want to call this resistance the “inward resistance”.

Let me start with a short discussion on what I believe are the primary inspirational sources for this kind of resistance. In 2004, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt published their book Multitude2 which, together with the books Empire3 and Commonwealth4, became somewhat of a renewal for critical leftist thought. In Multitude, they argue that resistance, in the face of a non-territorialized but global capitalist power, has taken a likewise non-territorialized and non-centralized character. The multitude consists of all those heterogenous struggles that try to undermine capitalist hegemony. The struggle can never be unified into a single emancipatory force. In 1985, anarchist Hakim Bey had argued, in an argument a little more concrete than Hardt and Negri, for the creation of what he called “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (TMZ) which he described as a “guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it”.5 These two works bear the seeds the notion of resistance as desertion and as creating something autonomous outside the established realm of politics.

This is what I want to call the “inward” direction of resistance. Despite its promises of democratic renewal, what are the consequences of this? Let me turn to two poststructuralist thinkers: Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Zizek. Mouffe delivers, especially in her latest book, Agonistics6, a fierce critique against Hardt and Negri for pleading for the withdrawal of activism from established politics. Zizek also frantically attacks the promises of the withdrawal from politics by criticizing different forms of autonomous self-organization. By invoking such projects as the creation of “capitalism-free zones” in Greece in the aftermath of the economic crisis, he claims that these projects can never universalize and sustain themselves in a democratically healthy manner. He even goes on saying that “the most dangerous dream of the left was precisely this idea of some type of immediate, self-transparent direct democracy” and argues for the reinvention of a leftist state that can “change things at the most everyday common life level”, not through short bursts, however enthusiastic, of democracy.

Using the critique of Mouffe and Zizek, I fear that in these times, when resistance is probably needed the most, it will take the form of emancipatory forces that turn inward and leave the liberal democratic institutions to wither away. Despite the democratic promises of self-organization in the form of local multitudes, these forms of organization actually accept defeat. In the face of threats against economic, political and ecological democracy, is withdrawal and temporary autonomy the most radical alternative we can think of? Do we really think that this is the only way we can challenge threats to democracy? Are not democratic ideals worth defending in a constant struggle with the political institutions (as Mouffe also argues for)? Should we not leave the nostalgic notion of how local multitudes create democratic fervor for a few people during a short period of time, while the liberal democratic institutions slowly are hollowed out? To me, self-organized multitudes risk being a depoliticized resistance, without the desire to defend basic liberal democratic institutions and values. In times of fascist challenges to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy we do not need people turning away from it, creating their own zones of autonomy. We need people to fight for its very survival and for the radical demands it originally held.

  1. I am referring to the collective ”Tamera”, which, in the region of Alentejo in Portugal, has created a self-sufficient community with the aim of living in harmony with nature.
  2. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2004). Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. London: Penguin Books.
  3. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  4. Negri, A. & Hardt, M. (2009). Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  5. Bey, H. in Dunscombe, S. (2002). Cultural Resistance Reader. London: Verso, p. 116-117.
  6. Mouffe, C. (2013). Agonistics – Thinking the World Politically. London: Verso.