Simon Choat's interview on Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in the 21st Century @ Obsolete Capitalism

Simon Choat's interview on digital populism and recent European political phenomena, held on 16th June 2013 with the author of this blog and of Obsolete Capitalism. This is the last one of the first instalment of interviews - others will follow soon both in English and Italian. In the meanwhile, we will publish the italian translation of Parikka's interview on Saturday 12 OctoberThe previous interviews were held with:
Jussi Parikka 14 SeptemberSaul Newman 21 SeptemberTony D. Sampson 28 September.

 EDIT: We collected Choat's interview in PDF file to download or read online. All interviews on digital populism - in English language - are collected into a single file HERE.

Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in the 21st Century

'Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism... fascism of the couple, family, school, and office. Only the micro-fascism can answer the global question: "why does desire long for its repression? how can it desires its very own repression?"'
— Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari, A thousand plateaus, pg.271

    On the micro-fascism
    OC Let us start from the analysis Wu Ming set out in their brief essay Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming from Italy and which interprets Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a new authoritarian right-wing faction. Why did the desire for change of much of the electorate long once again for its very repression? We seem to witness the re-affirmation of Wilhelm Reich’s thought: at a given moment in history the masses wanted fascism. The masses have not been deceived: they have understood very well the danger of authoritarianism; but they have voted it anyway. Even more worrying is that the authoritarian Berlusconi's Freedom People (PDL) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) conquer more than half of the Italian electorate together. A very similar situation arose in the UK in May 2013, with the UKIP’s exploit in the latest local elections. Why and in what measure are the toxins of authoritarianism and micro-fascism present in contemporary European society?

Simon Choat Authoritarian and even fascism remain genuine threats across Europe. Increasingly there is also a threat from a kind of ‘fascism-lite’ or ‘fascism with a human face’: parties and movements which draw on populist, anti-big business or anti-banking rhetoric while proposing pro-capitalist, authoritarian, and (implicitly or explicitly) racist policies. In England this is arguably represented (albeit in the usual tepid English way) by UKIP (who despite their name are an English rather than a British phenomenon) – though there is also the old-fashioned street violence of the English Defence League.
I think there are both merits and dangers in interpreting these threats in terms of ‘desiring repression’. It can be a useful corrective to the outdated and unhelpful notion of ‘false consciousness’, whereby people are supposedly deceived through ignorance or illusion into wanting repression or exploitation. But at the same time – whether in Reich or Deleuze – there is a risk that this notion of ‘false consciousness’ is reintroduced by the back door, with an implicit distinction between those who enjoy a ‘good’ desire (for emancipation, revolution) and those who labour under a ‘bad’ desire (for repression, authority) and require someone (a party, a leader, an intellectual) to enlighten them. More generally, I’m not sure ‘repression’ is a very useful concept: power under capitalism doesn’t operate by repression but by inducing and inciting desire and pleasure.
Nonetheless, speaking of ‘micro-fascism’ is useful insofar as it draws our attention to the everyday social practices and affective investments that reinforce centres of power: fascism can develop at least in part out of the desire for a sense of order or to feel part of something, a desire that can become particularly strong at times of crisis and which can manifest itself in authoritarian ways. This is why we should be especially wary of the ‘digital populism’ of something like Grillismo: its appeal to people’s desire to feel part of a ‘movement’ is reinforced by the narcissistic draw of social media.
Ultimately, however, explaining the rise of authoritarianism today would require a long-term, concrete, historical analysis that encompassed not merely the current economic crisis but also a variety of other factors, including but not limited to the rise of neo-liberalism over the past thirty years, rising unemployment and disempowerment, and the decline of trade unions and the social-democratic left.
    1919, 1933, 2013. On the crisis
    OC In 2008 Slavoj Zizek said that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the early 1930s Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic — the Jewish conspiracy and the corruption of political parties. Zizek ends his reflection by stating that the expectations of the radical left to get scope for action and gain consent may be deceptive as populist or racist formations will prevail: the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Fidesz, the French Front National, the UK Independence Party are examples. Italy has had farcical groups such as the Lega Nord or the recent Five Star Movement, a bizarre rassemblement that seems to combine Reverend Jones People's Temple with Syriza, or ‘revolutionary boyscoutism’ with the disciplinarism of the societies of control. How can one escape the crisis? What discursive, possibly-winning narratives should be developed? Are the typically Anglo-Saxon neo-Keynesian politics an answer or, on the countrary, is it the new authoritarian populism that will prevail?

SC Žižek’s analysis has been validated: at the moment of its greatest crisis, neo-liberal capitalism has been strengthened rather than weakened. The reasons for this are complex, but a key element has been its victory in the ‘ideological competition’. In the UK, for example, the economic crisis has been blamed on the supposedly ‘spendthrift’ policies of the previous Labour government – hence the need for what is euphemistically termed ‘austerity’. In fact, this narrative is now so widely accepted that the present government has already moved onto a new story which emphasises our need to compete in a global ‘race’ (and so deregulate business, lower taxes and wages, remove employment rights, etc.).
So we do need an alternative narrative. But I hope that our choice is not simply between neo-populist authoritarianism and neo-Keynesianism! If anything, this seems to me to be a false alternative: if populism is that which claims to unite a society while in reality obscuring actual relations of power and forms of struggle, then it could be argued that Keynesianism itself is a form of populism, propagating the fantasy of a capitalism that can benefit all. (This does not, however, exclude the possibility that we may need to engage in a kind of strategic Keynesianism, defending the welfare state, employment rights, public sector provision, etc.: given the current context, defending the welfare state is a radical gesture.)The left does however face a number of difficulties in developing its own narrative. First, there is ideological competition among the left itself. The right has a simpler task: it is easier simply to defend the status quo than to challenge it. Second, any worthwhile leftist analysis will focus on apersonal structures, and it is hard to incorporate these into a popular narrative (this is why there are not many good Marxist novels or films). This is one reason why we instead get populist narratives with clear protagonists on whom blame can be placed (bankers, immigrants, bureaucrats, etc.). Finally, there is the difficulty of disseminating narratives when the channels of dissemination are mostly owned and operated by precisely those that we are trying to challenge. Social media may be useful here, but social media does not operate in a vacuum: it operates within the same set of social relations as traditional media, its participants are subject to the same ideological pressures, it remains subject to state and corporate censorship and (as we’ve seen recently) spying. And (as can be seen with M5S in Italy) it often just acts as a sort of giant echo chamber of stupidity: it’s not necessarily conducive to critical thought.

    On the missing people
    OC Mario Tronti states that ‘there is populism because there is no people.’ That of the people is an enduring theme which Tronti disclaims in a very Italian way: ‘the great political forces use to stand firmly on the popular components of the social history: the Catholic populism, the socialist tradition, the diversity in communism. Since there was the people, there was no populism.’ Paul Klee often complained that even in historical artistic avant-gardes ‘it was people who lacked.’ However the radical critique to populism has led to important results: the birth of a mature democracy in America; the rise of the theory and the practice of revolution in the Tsarist Empire, a country plagued by the contradictions of a capitalist development in an underdeveloped territory (Lenin and the bolshevism). Tronti carries on in his tranchant analysis of the Italian and European backgrounds: ‘In today's populism, there is no people and there is no prince. It is necessary to beat populism because it obscures the relations of power.’ Through its economic-mediatic-judicial apparatuses, neopopulism constantly shapes “trust-worthy people” similar to the "customers portfolio" of the branded world of neoliberal economy: Berlusconi’s “people” have been following the deeds of Arcore’s Sultan for twenty years; Grillo’s followers are adopting similar all-encompassing identifying processes, giving birth to the more confused impulses of the Italian social strata. With institutional fragility, fluctuating sovereignties and the oblivion of left-wing dogmas (class, status, conflict, solidarity, equality) how can we form people today? Is it possible to reinvent anti-authoritarian people? Is it only the people or also the politics itself to lack?

SC In some ways Tronti’s analysis is very acute: broadly speaking, contemporary populism is at least in part a product of the abandonment of the political reference to class, and we need to revive this reference to class. In doing so we also need to avoid populist representations of class which would reduce it to a series of caricatures (greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, conspiring elites, etc.) or which understand class only in terms of its manifest signifiers instead of in terms of ownership, control, and power. So there is a need to sharpen and highlight class divisions, but I don’t really see what is to be gained in using the label of ‘the people’. Of course we need a moment of political articulation in which we form alliances and unite disparate struggles (rather than resorting to spontaneist fantasises about a ‘multitude’), but these alliances should rooted in our concrete experiences of (un)employment, exploitation, etc.: there’s no need to invoke a ‘people’. Put simply, ‘the people’ is not a Marxist category, and I think it’s Marxism which is most useful for explaining our situation. ‘The people’ is a populist category, and hence regressive. (But maybe I’ve misunderstood Tronti’s claims...)
    On Control
    OC In Postscript on the Societies of Control, published in 1990, Gilles Deleuze states that, thanks to the illuminating analyses of Michel Foucault, a new diagnosis of contemporary Western society emerges. Deleuze's analysis is as follows: control societies have replaced disciplinary societies at the beginning of the twentieth century. He writes that ‘marketing is now the instrument of social control and it forms the impudent breed of our masters.’ Let us evaluate who stands beyond two very successful electoral adventures such as Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s first party) and M5S: respectively Publitalia 80 owned by Marcello Dell'Utri and Casaleggio Asssociati owned by Gianroberto Casaleggio. The incontrovertible fact that two marketing companies stand out reinforces Deleuze’s analysis. Mechanisms of control, media events such as exit polls and infinite surveys, im/penetrable databases, data as commodities, continuous spin doctoring, influencers that lead consensus on the net, opaque bots, digital squads, dominant echo-chambering. Evil media. These are the determinations of post-ideological (post-democratic?) neoliberalism. The misery of the new control techniques competes only with that of the glass house of gri%ina transparency (web-control, of course). Jacques Ranciere says we live in the epoch of post- politics: how can we get out of the neo-liberal cage and free ourselves from the ideological consensus of its electoral products? What will the reconfiguration of left-wing politics be after the exhaustion of Marxist hegemony?

SC A very good question! And unfortunately not one that has a simple answer. Our initial task is simply to open up spaces in which this question can be discussed. This is why, for all its faults and problems, the Occupy movement was briefly promising. It was sometimes criticised for failing to offer an alternative vision, but that criticism misses the point that its alternative was performative, so to speak: the very act of occupation was an alternative to the increasingly brutal privatisation of space, a reclaiming of a space in which, amongst other things, debate could take place. 
Marxism has an important role to play here: its hegemony may be exhausted, in that it no longer dominates radical leftist politics in Europe – although in the UK it has always been marginal – but it still provides the most rigorous and powerful critique of the capitalism that should be our target. It is also a model for a way in which to do politics: as is well known, Marx – much like Foucault – did not spend time creating blueprints for the future, but developing and sharpening analysis of the present that could be used by those taking part in existing struggles, out of which concrete alternatives are developed.

    On the Googlization of politics; the financial side of digi-populism
    OC The first decade of the 21st century has been characterized by the rise of neo-capitalism, referred to as cognitive; in this context a company like Google has established itself as the perfect synthesis of web-business as it does not compensate, if not in a small part, the content-carriers it lists. In Italy, following the electoral success of the Five Stars Movement we witnessed a mutation of the typical prosumer of social networks: the new figure of the “prosumer-voter” was in fact born on Grillo’s blog - being essentially the one and only channel of information of the movement. The blog is a commercial activity and the high number of contacts and daily access has steadily increased in the last year. This digital militancy produces incomes both in the form of advertising and online sales of products such as DVDs, books and other material associated with the movement. All of this leads to the risk of googlization of politic whereby the modes of financing political activity radically change because of the "network surplus-value" - an expression coined by the researcher Matteo Pasquinelli to define that portion of incomes extracted from the practices of the web prosumers. Having said this, are we about to witness a shift of the financial paradigm applied to politics? Will the fundings from powerful lobbies or the general public be replaced by micro-donations via web (in the style of Obama’s) and by the exploitation of the prosumer-voters? And if so, will the dominant 'googlization of politics' involve any particular risks?
SC The main job of the state today is to represent capital. Mainstream politicians are tied to that task: Obama’s micro-donations have not made his policies any less authoritarian or neo-liberal. If there is a ‘googlization of politics’ then I would suggest it refers to something else, namely the growing political power of the hit-tech industry: its increasingly powerful role as a lobby group, the development of giant monopolies, the willing role of tech companies within state surveillance, and so on. Google is a corporation like any other – and, as such, not exactly supportive of democratic or emancipatory ends.

    On digital populism, on affective capitalism
    OC James Ballard once said that after the religions of the Book we should expect those of the Web. Some claim that, in fact, a first techno-religion already exists in the form of Affective Capitalism whose technological and communicative characteristics mirror those of network cultures. This notion of a secularized cult can be traced back to Walter Benjamin's thought but is enriched by a very contemporary mix of affective manipulation techniques, politics of neo-liberalism and political practices 2.0. The rise of the Five Star Movement is the first successful example of italian digital populism; Obama’s campaign in the U.S.A. has witnessed an evolution of micro-targeting techniques - customized political offers via the web. The new frontier of both medical and economic research is producing a disturbing convergence of evolving ‘fields of knowledges’: control theories, neuro-economics and neuro-marketing. In 1976, in the optic of the ‘war-repression’ schema, Foucault entitled his course at the Collège de France ‘Society must be defended’. Now, faced with the general friability of all of us, how can we defend ourselves from the impact of affective capitalism and its digital practices? Can we put forward a differential, local knowledge which, as Foucault said, ‘owes its force only to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it’?
SC The digital world introduces new openings and possibilities, potentially offering new ways for people to become politically active, but it also brings with it certain risks: the focus on speed and simultaneity does not necessarily aid thoughtful critical reflection, and the often individualised and privatised nature of digital activities are not necessarily conducive to collective struggle. We need to think through these issues without resorting to moral judgements which either simply celebrate or condemn, resisting both the techno-utopian propaganda promoted by the tech industry and the reactionary, nostalgic anxiety which inflates the novelty of digital technology by catastrophizing its impact. What we need instead is a dispassionate historical-materialist analysis which locates these developments within contemporary capitalism, examining the impact of new technologies on distributions of wealth and power and situating the uses of digital technology within existing social relations. And of course we should avoid seeing digital technologies as a panacea. I’ve always been struck by a comment from Deleuze, which seems ever more pertinent: ‘We don't suffer these days from any lack of communication, but rather from all the forces making us say things when we’ve nothing much to say.’ This is one of our tasks today: to resist the demand that we say something.   

Simon Choat, English, is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Kingston University, London (UK) and is the author of the book 'Marx Through Post-Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze' (Continuum, UK, 2010)'. His current research  current research covers a range of areas, including: Marx’s 'Grundrisse'; philosophies of ‘new materialism’; surplus population and unemployment; and the Marxism of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. He is a member of the Marxism Specialist Group - Political Studies Association. His latest essay 'From Marxism to Poststructuralism' is included in the collection 'The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism.' (Edinburgh University Press, UK, 2013) edited by Dillet, Mackenzie and Porter. He is currently writing a Reader's Guide to Marx's Grundrisse for Bloomsbury Publishing.

Painting: Stelios Faitakis