I ran across this article, “Toward a Breakdown of the Capitalist Subject?” via a post at Jodi’s. I think the piece is inadequate and evidences a widespread and mistaken understanding of capitalism which overemphasizes the sphere of circulation; this is common in conversations that conflate (anti-)capitalism with (anti-)neoliberalism.

“Perhaps the economic catastrophe is dissipating the most glaring illusions about the self-regulating market”

– what illusions, held by whom, and held in what manner? I’m thinking here of some of the registers I see when I read v1 of Marx’s Capital – illusions held by economic actors, the actual practices of economic actors, and the ostensible or publicly stated views of political economists. I mention the last thinking of Michael Perelman’s book the Invention of Capitalism, which argues that while classical political economists *sounded* like they thought markets were self sufficient – self constituting, and self regulating – and articulated arguments to this effect, the documentary evidence of these economists’ private and policy documents shows that they in fact were aware that the self-sufficiency of markets was an ideological fiction.

The article’s authors hold that “capitalism” includes or is in part “a way of inciting subjects to behave according to the company model and the general norm of competition.” Capitalism “everywhere establish[es] competitive situations between subjects, by inciting them to become the winners of a universal competition, by imposing controls and surveillance and, above all, by pushing subjects to self-control by making performance the ruler of each person’s life,” and thus this system has the impact of constructing a new subject, a “neo-subject,” as some psychoanalysts call it.”

This is overstated and one-sided. This ‘subjectivity’ is rooted almost entirely in the market for commodities other than labor power, with only passing reference to labor markets (competition for jobs) and some workplaces (competition among workers after their labor power has been purchased – ie, on the job between workers). What this leaves out is that capitalism has always included cooperation as well, in at least two senses – the cooperation under the direct management of capitalists (or their agents) on the job, as described by Marx in the chapters on cooperation and the workplace, and the cooperation, referenced in passing and in only partial form by Marx required to continue to reproduce labor power – reproducing existing labor power on a daily/annual basis and producing new labor power on a generational basis.

This cooperation offers at least some basis for some organization against capitalism, such that we might hesitate to reduce it to ‘capitalist subjectivity.’ On the other hand, this cooperation is subordinated to the command of capitalists in/via various mediations. What’s more, capitalism is impossible without this cooperation. In any case, to understand “capitalist subjectivity” as simply market subjectivity, as the subjectivities involved in the sphere of circulation, is misleading on two counts. One, it presents the subjectivities required in and propagated by capitalism in only a partial fashion. Two, it doesn’t help us understand the importance of cooperation to capitalism. More specifically on this point, it doesn’t help us understand the important point that there is a mode of cooperation-as-capitalism. Without that perspective, it is hard to understand either the past or the present, and the implied political claims and demands in the piece risk being merely social democratic, calling only for a better capitalism (a sort demand which we have to make but if instantiated is likely only to really result in a better capitalism for some, at the expense of others).

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