Capitalist Dystopia Part 4–Racing against the Machine: from the Ends of Sleep to the Ends of Work

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

Over the last couple of years, artificial intelligence has been depicted in a surprising number of films—including Autómata (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Big Hero 6 (2014), Chappie (2015), Ex Machina (2015, pictured above), キカイダー REBOOT (2014), Robocop (2014), Terminator Genisys [sic.] (2015), and Transcendence (2014).[i] Although not uniformly apocalyptic in tone, these movies collectively embody a broader current of disquiet about the ethical dilemmas and potential dangers of machine sentience. Nor are these anxieties confined to the typical movie-going public. July 28, 2015, Stephen Hawking, Noam Chomsky, and a host of other luminaries signed an open letter cautioning against a “global AI arms race” and calling for a ban on “autonomous weapons. In doing so they lent their weight to the idea that in some respects these cinematic fantasies might be well founded.

But for many social theorists, the graver contemporary threat is not killer robots, but worker robots stripping us of employment and purpose.

In this rather long post, I place contemporary robot-movies in dialogue with an essay by John Maynard Keynes (“Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren“) in order to explore a particular contemporary capitalist nightmare—that the very technological innovation that has undergirded modern productivity might in fact be its undoing. More specifically, I want to see how dystopian readings of automation (in particular the automation of mind or machine sentience) contribute to fears of the loss of sleep and the loss of work. Technological optimists should fret not as in a later post I’ll look at acceleration as utopian liberation. But if you follow me across the fold I’ll examine acceleration as despair or we might say as the death drive of the robot apocalypse.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 3——Fissures in Paradise: First World Problems or Micro-dystopias, Bullshit Jobs, and the Seeds of Bourgeois Alienation

Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Fissure–Photocredit camera_obscura [busy]

Proponents of Neoliberalism have described access to free markets and free trade as a kind of global panacea.[i] It is often said that were the developing world willing to adopt a more laissez faire economic policy it would in short order achieve the quality of life associated with the bourgeois first-world. Restated, the embrace of global capitalism by less developed countries is supposed to provide access to the “American dream” and not merely in terms of Levi jeans and iPhones but resulting in a fundamentally better lifestyle.[ii] Basically, free markets are supposed to equate with freedom and “the good life.” But is that really true? Is the First-World lifestyle really all that? If we could get rid of the world’s poorest slums and produce a lifestyle equivalent to that in the metropol middle class would we all be living in paradise?

In the last entry I explored the exploitative heart of our current world-system. I showed how the underbelly of capitalism is so far removed from the ordinary experiences of average citizens in developed nations that aspects of life in some less developed nations can look downright post-apocalyptic. But I also argued that these seeming disruptions or interruptions of capitalism are the ordinary functioning of the system. In so doing, I was trying to represent real or “developing-world” problems both abroad and even inside the heartland of America. In this entry, I want to expose the dystopian aspects of the first world. I want to show the end product of all that global effort and demonstrate that even this putative utopia has fissures, which expose unsustainable facets of the current world-order. In particular, in this post I want to showcase some “First-World-Problems” or micro-dystopias and explore their amplification or extrapolations.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 2——-A Voyage to the Dark Heart of Capitalism or what can Joseph Conrad tell us about commodity fetishism?

Unicef -

Unicef – “Foto des Jahres” 2011 by Kai Löffelbein –

If you scoured the globe looking for a location to film a post-apocalyptic dystopia, you might on visual grounds alone choose Agbogbloshie, the toxic scrapyard in Ghana where computers go when they die. At this technological graveyard, one can find workers from northern Ghana and the Ivory Coast scavenging through discarded motherboards, damaged keyboards, cracked television monitors, smashed microwaves, and broken cellphones for resalable materials. Fires dot the landscape as piles of ruble are set ablaze in order to disclose the precious copper and aluminum. Pollution seeps into the water and air. Crime is rampant and many of these workers will end up sick from toxic fumes or plagued with later health problems.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine Agbogbloshie as specifically post-apocalyptic science fiction. While it has long been a racist cliché to depict Africa as a place that time forgot, Agbogbloshie looks like the future that might appear after a disruption of our world-system. But this e-waste graveyard isn’t capitalism breaking down, instead it is the ordinary functioning of the current system. Indeed, few places showcase the impasses of the system better. This is what makes Agbogbloshie so important for my larger project (to get caught up see the initial prompt “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?” and Part I- “The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?”).

By way of explanation, the term “capitalism” is often tossed about as a vague and intimidating abstraction either celebrated as the essence of progress and wellspring of modern civilization or condemned as the cause of all the world’s ills. But almost nobody agrees on the definition of capitalism or when it first came into being (if ever).[a] Plus, because our current world-system is so vast and complicated, our current problems are maddeningly difficult to even begin to diagnose. So even if you feel a sense that things are wrong, the scale alone might seem to make improving the world neigh impossible.

You’ll get a more explicit definition (or two) of capitalism in a later post. But here I’d like to try to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system and figure out why precisely it is so hard to have sense of the objects in our world and their relationship to this system. To do that, if you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll explore what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.

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Capitalist Dystopia Part 1——-The Janus-face of Capitalism or Is Walmart Utopia?

inverted janus Is Walmart Utopia? Restated, might Walmart serve as a contemporary model for a post-capitalist future society? Both formulations of the question sounds equally absurd. Few people actively champion Walmart, and almost no one would depict it as their ideal place. Indeed, according to a recent survey it is “the most-hated retailer in America.”[i] This is not exactly a new sentiment, but nevertheless in Valences of the Dialectic, Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson looked to Walmart forthe shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist.”[ii]  Pressing into the power of the dialectic to reconcile with inherent contradiction, Jameson argued that it was possible to look past Walmart’s failings for the seeds of its utopian potential. If you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll discuss Jameson’s utopian recuperation of Walmart and look at its potential inversions. Taking Jameson’s Valences and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspirations, I’ll attempt to trace the crystalized phantasmagoria of post-Fordist capitalism. I’ll ask–what is our contemporary analogue to the Parisian shopping malls of the nineteenth century? Put differently, I’ll try and liberate the dreams of an escape from capitalism that can be found paradoxically imbedded in the heart of certain capitalist structures. But first we’ll look into the dystopian “mist” that clings to Walmart. Continue reading

Dystopia Revisited (Blogging Unblocked)

[Note: I imagined a weeklong gap between posts, but the work of chairing a department and writing a book got in the way. Sorry. Now that the academic year is over, I’m back at it. To get unblocked and back to blogging, I had to remind myself that I didn’t want these to be a series of articles, but more like a set of quick thoughts/unpolished first drafts. Also, I had originally planned a two-part blog-post about the persistence of utopia, but I was struck by responses to the last entry that challenged the idea that we would want to move beyond contemporary capitalism. So, I want to tarry in dystopian-darkness before returning to utopia.]

Photo Credit Robert Hruzek

A preview:

Where the last post left it: we seemed to be caught in the coils of a particular repetition compulsion — constantly (re)imagining the end of the world, but unable to imagine a possible future that doesn’t include capitalism. (PART I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism is here: it asked “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”).


My main objective in this series of posts is to overturn this line of argumentation by uncovering seeds of utopia and tracing alternatives to modern capitalism. But first I want to go in the opposite direction by painting a pessimistic picture of the contemporary capitalist world order. If you are already up on the case against global corporate capitalism you can wait a month or two for a later utopian post. But if you want to understand the contemporary allure of dystopia then read on.

Before settling down to business I want to mention the standard critiques of capitalism – corporate neo-feudalism and increasing wealth inequality; never-ending cutthroat competition; the violence of economic imperialism and oppression; capital’s ability to subvert democracy; money’s role in mediating and cheapening our most personal relationships; the alienation resulting from a life of repetitive specialized labor; the inherent psychological instability resulting from the inevitable boom and bust cycles of the marketplace; and so on. As descriptions of the current-world system these are all fair, but they won’t really connect for many readers and will instead appear to be nothing more than empty abstractions. In the posts that follow, I want to see if the horrors of the current capitalist world-system can be distilled into apprehensible images – like a world reflected in a dewdrop. Restated, I’m looking for concrete symbols by which we can begin to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system.

Over the next three posts (which starting June 16 I hope to post every other week on Mondays or Tuesdays )—I’ll confront the Janus face of contemporary global capitalism (including both corporate dystopia and the dreams of anti-capitalist utopia frozen in capitalist structures), I’ll explore technological junkyards, I’ll ask what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and I’ll excavate Post-Fordist nightmares about flexible labor, automation, unemployment, and the loss of sleep. Then I’ll return to the deferred issue of contemporary utopia.

The Stubborn Persistence of Post-Capitalist Utopia: Introduction- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism

One reoccurring charge against postmodernism and poststructuralism alike is that they are unable to think utopia.

At first Capitalist Realismpass, this certainly seems plausible, after all postmodernism in Lyotard’s famous formulation was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” For another example, in all of Derrida’s work on deconstruction, did he not (perhaps admirably) refuse to offer an alternative to logocentrism? To be sure, he privileged writing over speech and praised grammatology. But by and large Derrida resisted utopia’s allure. Plus, aren’t classic postmodern works like Naked Lunch, The Crying of Lot 49, or Blade Runner deeply pessimistic?

Indeed it is easy to paint that entire period of philosophy and art as the culmination of skepticism or cynical reason—or in other words as the withering of modernist utopianism or perhaps as nothing less than pure crystalized dystopia. As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, charged the protagonist

You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” To which he replied: “You know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”

But of course, even in France he couldn’t. As it would seem at least a hundred political theorist have observed—it is hard to organize a politics around cynicism and nihilism, people need something to believe in and work toward, and hence the inability to think utopia is supposed to be precisely why postmodern and poststructuralist theory have failed to transform into easily recognizable political projects. As Žižek has argued, totalitarian regimes maintain their hold by encouraging cynicism. All they need to forestall revolution is to convince the masses that every politician is a bastard and all politic is corrupt. The people think why bother? and they continue supporting, with ironic distance, the mechanisms of a state in which they no longer believe. The promotion of postmodern skepticism would therefore seem to disable politics and prevent its ability to mobilize against the exploitations of global capitalism.

This critique of utopias absence has be sharpened recently by the British philosopher and blogger Mark Fisher. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (2009) was inspired by the insight (attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson) that

it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

This too certainly seems plausible and if you’ll follow me over the fold, I’ll layout both Fisher’s case AND in the next blog-post I’ll argue against this thesis by looking at a few seeds of anti-capitalist utopia

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