Capitalist Retro-Utopias


The limitations of the contemporary political imaginary have been put on full display in this most recent electoral cycle, with the left failing to conceptualize alternatives beyond the hegemony of capitalist relations. Instead,  it has, in various ways, oriented its political challenges to the neoliberal order by looking backwards, appealing to a mythological Fordist past. This retro-utopian vision takes the form of an economic nationalism paired with institutional labor politics, dreaming of a return to an era of industrial wage-labor mediated by the combined might of trade unions and a paternalistic welfare state. The clock is wound back, and globalism recedes before the emergence of an economics of sovereignty, with nation-states re-establishing themselves as autonomous and self-governed territorialities, freed from the greed of multinational “corporate” capitalism. From Sanders to Mélenchon to Corbyn, electoral “resistance” to the status quo has relied to a large extent on this fantasy. It is telling of the current state of affairs that no currently relevant political actors have been able to look beyond the apparently endless of horizon of capital. This inability to respond to crisis with something other than nostalgic escapism only further proves that the ballot box (and those who organize around it) remains firmly ensnared in the clutches of capitalist ideology.

That anti-neoliberalism is not synonymous with anti-capitalism should come as no surprise, and yet for many on the left, the only viable course of action appears to be opposition to a particular modality of capitalist organization, be it embodied in the EU or free trade agreements. This opposition shares with its right-wing counterpart the assumption that a re-localization of capital is both possible and desirable. Characteristic of this crypto-nationalism was Bernie Sanders’ call for a “corporate patriotism” that prioritizes American jobs over outsourced labor. This was a recurrent theme in his presidential campaign, which was supported by many on the left as a potential force for positive change. Both he and Trump were consistent in their repeated calls for a reversal of the policies that lead to the de-industrialization of the Rust Belt, making it clear the crypto-nationalism of the left is not far off from from the politics of the populist right.

What many fail to realize is that the Rust Belt extends beyond its geographic existence and into the political psyche, a decrepit, desolate space filled with little more than dust and cobwebs. This intellectual Rust Belt is the result of the atrophy of the radical imagination in the face of the evolving landscape of capital. The contemporary left is more reactive than it is revolutionary, only capable of mounting a response to the horrors of the present order in the form of an alternative capitalism, rather than an alternative to capitalism. With this inability (or refusal) to dream of anything but variations of the current nightmare, is it any wonder that such reactive politics become recuperated by forces of reaction? As the late Mark Fisher pointed out, “any opposition to flexibility and decentralization risks being self-defeating, since calls for inflexibility and centralization are, to say the least, not likely to be very galvanizing”.

The “immobilization model”, according to Fisher, “amounts to a demand to retain the Fordist/disciplinary regime”. The proponents of this model wish to roll back the development of new systems of control, and return to the industrial enclosure. Neoliberalism, not capitalism, is the primary enemy of the immobilizers.

The problem is that the economic nation-state doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the way many would hope. Global capitalism treats all regions as sites for economic development, regardless of whatever flag they may bear. It would be a grave theoretical error to try to isolate the world into autonomous political-economic units, as everything has becomes interconnected by the deterritorializing and reterritorializing flows of capital. And yet, those who align themselves with the cult of capitalisms past continue to try and do so. All we must do is dismantle neoliberal institutions and implement protectionist policies, they say, and we can protect our respective working classes from the ravages of international trade. So not only do theorists of the immobilization model fail to see the increasingly apparent obsolecense of the traditional nation-state, but also see fit to divide the working class against itself. They fail to see, as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue, that “the forces that contest Empire and effectively prefigure an alternative global society are themselves not limited to any geographical region. The geography of these alternative powers, the new cartography, is still waiting to be written—or really, it is being written today through the resistances, struggles, and desires of the multitude.” Any effective assault on global capitalism must be built around a common vision of a radical re-organization of society on an international level, rather than a push for economic isolationism. Visualizing a new world requires an affirmation of the potential of an international proletarian movement, one that is capable of adapting to new political and economic developments, without needing to appeal to ideological nostalgia.

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