The Peer Production Illusion: Part III: A Society For & Against The Market

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 2, 2012

The Peer Production Illusion

Part III: A Society For & Against The Market

In my last blog post, I attributed to Marx the view that capitalism entails reducing all social relations to self-interest, drowning social life in the icy water of egotistical calculation. A more recent iteration of this idea can be found in contemporary theorists of neoliberal capitalism like Wendy Brown, who makes it a key feature of neoliberal capitalism in Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy :

The political sphere, along with every other dimension of contemporary existence, is submitted to an economic rationality, or put the other way around, not only is the human being configured exhaustively as homo oeconomicus, all dimensions of human life are cast in terms of a market rationality… neo-liberalism produces rational actors and imposes market rationale for decision-making in all spheres.

The problem with this kind of critique is that it is all too easily adopted by conservatives like David Brooks, whose recent book The Social Animal decries the individualistic homo oeconomicus view of human nature. By appealing to the discoveries of neuropsychology, Brooks wants to replace this with a human nature that sees us as social, intuitive and relational creatures. He prophesies a shift (“One era was economo-centric. The next would be socio-centric”) and sees the role of government as nurturing and supporting this innate sociability.

If we accept this view of the excessively rational, calculating neoliberal subject that David Brooks and Wendy Brown share, Brooks’ version of human nature really does imply a shift. But Foucault presents a more complex portrait of the type of subjectivity appropriate to neoliberal society:

Homo oeconomicus and civil society are therefore two inseparable elements. Homo oeconomicus is, if you like, the abstract, ideal, purely economic point that inhabits the dense, full, and complex reality of civil society. Or alternatively, civil society is the concrete ensemble within which these ideal points, economic men, must be placed so that they can be appropriately managed. So, homo oeconomicus and civil society belong to the same ensemble of the technology of liberal governmentality.

This quotation is from The Birth of Biopolitics, a series of Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism where he finds a precursor to American neoliberalism in the ordoliberals, a group of economists working in the 1920s in Germany with some similar ideas. But important difference is that in American neoliberalism we see an elision of any distinction between the economic and the social spheres by extending economic logic.

One example that Foucault gives is analyzing the mother-child relationship in terms of human capital and psychological investment and return as a way of reconceiving social relations as economic relations. In other words, they tried to view social life directly as a form of productivity. (David Brooks repeats this logic in The Social Animal when he quotes studies showing the impact of parent-child attachment styles to school performance and drop-out rates. But this aspect of neoliberal thinking is also a feature of P2P ideology where it focuses on the productivity of cooperation and intrinsically-motivated labor.)

In contrast, the ordoliberals believed that the cold ethic of self-interested rationality and competition in the market sphere had to be supplemented with warm communitarian cultural values that provide cohesion in the social sphere. Foucault says,

The enterprise society imagined by the ordoliberals is therefore a society for the market and a society against the market, a society oriented towards the market and a society that compensates for the effects of the market in the realm of values and existence.

For neoliberalism, the compensating role lies with civil society. Even though its academic fathers were interested in imposing economic logic in all aspects of life, really existing neoliberalism has always promoted civic virtues, particularly by center-left Third Way leaders like Clinton and Blair, but also on the right with Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism and Cameron’s Big Society programs. By opposing the more totalizing ideal of neoliberalism, they are instrumental in making it a reality by appearing to soften its excesses.

Why is it necessary to supplement the cold logic of the market with warm cooperation? Or to put it another way, how does Adam Smith’s heart-warming Theory of Moral Sentiments function as a supplement to his defense of self-interest in The Wealth of Nations? This relationship seems to follow the Lacanian logic of the universal and its constitutive exception: in order to have cold, calculating self-interest as a universal principle hegemonic over the entire social field, there must be an inherent transgression, something which appears to violate this norm, allowing us to maintain a distance from it.

The problem with the beachhead hypothesis of peer production that I mentioned in Part II is that it views cooperative work as the transgressive outside of alienated, self-interested labor. For me, it is better understood as a Lacanian extimacy, the external intimacy which appears simultaneously as the outside and also deep within the heart.

In The Fragile Absolute, Žižek provides an alternative approach to contesting capitalist domination:

[I]n order to effectively liberate oneself from the grip of existing social reality, one should first renounce the transgressive fantasmatic supplement that attaches us to it. In what does this renunciation consist? In a series of recent (commercial) films, we find the same surprising gesture. In Speed, when the hero (Keanu Reeves) is confronting the terrorist blackmailer who is holding his partner at gunpoint, the hero shoots not the blackmailer, but his own partner in the leg – this apparently senseless act momentarily shocks the blackmailer, who releases the hostages and runs away.

What these three gestures have in common is that in a situation of forced choice, the subject makes the ‘crazy’, impossible choice of, in a way, striking at himself, at what is most precious to himself. This act, far from amounting to a case of impotent aggressivity turned against oneself, rather changes the co-ordinates of the situation in which the subject finds himself: by cutting himself loose from the precious object through whose possession the enemy kept him in check, the subject gains the space of free action.

Žižek finds a more radical version of this principle in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The heroine Sethe escapes from slavery with her four children, but at the moment that she is about to be recaptured by the plantation owner, she kills her eldest daughter and attempts to kill her other children, later explaining this by saying “If I hadn’t killed her she would have died, and that is something I could not bear to happen to her.”

This suggests a form of anti-capitalist activism that is not the negative, moralizing attacks on elite selfishness and greed, which all too easily slide into Occupy Black Friday’s denunciations of the greed, materialism and lack of civic virtues of the lower classes; nor the positive program of building alternative structures of cooperation outside of market that are no less internal to it. Instead, it is the crazy, impossible choice of destroying those very alternatives. Rather than advancing the bounds of the beachhead, we should turn back and destroy it – not just the new forms of peer production and social enterprises that are emerging, but the traditional system of charitable giving and volunteering and the ideal subjectivity of sharing, altruism and cooperation that supports both. These must also be killed so they do not die.