Extracto de mi entrevista publicada en el cuarto número impreso de la revista internacional DUST, en junio de 2013.
Inma Benedito (IB): It’s undeniable that capitalism works; although it’s unfair, features like consumption, surveillance, dread and debt are weapons whereby we are controlled by a minority. Facing this insight, You propose The community as the subject that detents power; what would be the best option. Taking in account that Power is an irrational nature of human being, don’t You think that Power might be rotten by a few ones? How could we prevent it?
J. Dan Taylor (JDT): Yes, I believe that power belongs to the many, the multitude: but I would be reluctant to say power belongs to the community, or the people, just because these notions presuppose some unity or common identity which I think is lacking, at least in my experience of London and travels around Europe. This multitude are at present a disorganised and fragmented network of individuals, strangers, sometimes united in belief for or against a war, or together as a religious community, it varies. There is nothing irrational about power, about desiring to secure your own advantage and get what you want – we all strive for this and it’s inescapable, and neither is it necessarily a harmful thing – we may all strive to rebuild a city, as it serves the common interest, or work as teachers or healthcare assistants in a socialist society, we may just want to spend time on our own once in a while, eat pizza and ice cream and watch funny clips on YouTube.
The situation is systematically bad, hence removing some individuals won’t resolve its functional exploitation. The financial capitalist system is not built so much on fear/awe, as in totalitarian states, but rather an ideal of profiteering, seizure, toughness and success which, with no counter-power, results in mass indifference to politics. Problem is that it in effect consents to this rule by a few, who are themselves products of their class.
We can’t prevent power because we exist within it, and compose it – it is a field of relations formed by everybody who consents to remain within it. This means that the multitude have power, but they have been born into a system where the responsibility and choice of that power have been surrendered to governments. This is the old social contract of the 18th century modern nation-state. With neoliberalism, this social contract has been compromised in that states have privatised their assets and surrendered much of their infrastructure to international banks and businesses. If teachers are to strike for a day, this changes nothing for them and does not express their power, as the state desires to privatise their workplaces and will not be threatened (unless of course teachers were to take over schools for weeks, or destroy management files and records that codify learners into workers-to-be). But if people refuse to buy coca-cola for a year, or choose to physically loot and burn supermarkets, this is a meaningful expression of power by the multitude.
The above notion I’m sketching out is not original, it stems from a reading of Spinoza who I’ve been researching on since finishing Negative Capitalism in mid-2012. But unlike Spinoza, I don’t feel any necessary loyalty to a state that has abandoned its agreement in the social contract. For Spinoza, the dissolution of the social contract by the multitude against a tyranny necessarily leads to a state of war. If the multitude are to retake and use their inherent power, be it towards a social democracy or communism, they would need to form an effective counter-power against the physical and economic violence of the current state and its owners, the banks – against police, external economic embargoes, freezing of bank accounts, etc.
IB: Negative Capitalism makes clear that if society doesn’t knock over the system of capital is because we are alienated and depressed by itself. Foucault said that the answer it’s social revolution, not law or markets. You suggest ways to action against capital, but How to make people revolt? Might be an easier way to act sort of Kierkegaard’s pure ironist? Who could break with every dogma of social roles through volatilization (to not carry out obligations).
JDT: I like the concept of the pure ironist, it reminds me of punk countercultural figures, people that inspire through their total rejection of social norms, be it work, conformity, religion or morality – John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Bill Hicks – everyone will have different figures, people who didn’t give a shit which, when you’re 14 or 15 and dismayed by everything around you, is inspiring. There’s a use-value in being an ironist ‘all the way down’, it sparks thought and fantasy in reaction, potent stuff for social transformation, so I like this notion. Maybe Zizek is one? My problem however is that with irony, ultimately little changes after we laugh. We laugh and forget, we’re outraged and put if off: isn’t this the effect of his latest book, whatever that happens to be? Entertainment leads to disenchantment.
My main theoretical enemy then, when writing, was the notion of not carrying out obligations I suppose, the voice of Bartleby ‘I would prefer not to’, quoted glowingly by Deleuze, Agamben, Hardt & Negri and countless others working in critical theory. The situation’s far more serious for this kind of passive, middle-class revolt, cited by professors paid five times higher what their cleaner earns. Whilst Bartleby is quickly replaced by another agency worker on a zero-hours contract at the celebrity memoir print-house, people are being killed as an effect of neoliberal capitalism and its state protectors. I’m thinking here of recent killings by the British police of Ian Tomlinson, Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes, not to mention the 1,433 people who died in police custody between 1990 and 2012, in England and Wales. So this whole notion of the individual mocking social obligations, and sidestepping them where available, stems from a particular 19th-century white European male bohemianism that was only possible for the children of a tiny bourgeois class in a patriarchal society. While it’s funny and compelling, it doesn’t offer much in terms of strategy.
I remember when I was at secondary school, a state boys school near Croydon, south London. The lessons we learned from the teachers pertained more to human nature, on how to face and avoid despair and nihilism. Some of the teachers, the best ones, came in reeking of drink and would shout at us. After a while, they’d break down and let rip – we, the 14 year olds sat at our desks throwing paper and talking back to the teacher, we weren’t the problem, the whole thing was at fault, human nature – managers, excessive regulation, wives or lovers who’d abandoned them, the fact of growing old and becoming ill through one’s habits, not even feeling the energy for self-loathing, just a sense of profound, withering disappointment. I remember one teacher who told me about an ironic action of great proportions when he was younger, with a radical group had been based in Elephant & Castle, London. They took a radio antenna and broadcast using the Capital FM frequency, one of London’s most popular and dull talk/music stations. For a few hours everyone in that part of south London who tuned into that popular station would have been listening to an anarchist parody radio show, full of agitprop propagandising. There was something about this gesture, or perhaps his faith in it, which has variously inspired and bothered me in equal measure.
IB: You talk about the use of CCTV, which play the mocking role of ourselves; we live our own spectacle. But maybe this Society of the Spectacle is a far cry from being new; meeting with its precedents in Roman circus or Middle Ages; when delinquents were publically hanged. May the human being, contrary to the energy, be created and destroyed, but transformed? Or do our societies make any (negative) difference?
JDT: This is a great point, and again not something I’d considered when writing. But in the Middle Ages or ancient times, it was the criminal, heretic, or defeated soldier who would be displayed and destroyed. In consumer society, the masses become spectators of themselves, as Walter Benjamin argued in regard to fascism, though with equal prescience to consumerism, which perhaps in turn was just another form of centralised fascism for 1950s-60s America. The difference now is that we are far more wilfully isolated and ‘dividualised’ – we want to be alone, away from the contamination or nuisance of other bodies. Here, in front of the camera, we can be unique, sexual, compelling, a star – the content of responses to a video are of less interest than the quantity therein – whoever dislikes us simply fails to connect with our goodness. This I think is the internalised logic of CCTV, which arises at the same time as the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ and ‘reality TV’ formats. In our own controlled spaces, the barriers between the fictions of consumerism and the fantasies of the mind liquify, something that J.G. Ballard foresees clearly in his interviews from the mid-1970s, around the time of he was writing Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
But what I’m describing is a new but extreme tendency, and one that doesn’t reflect how many live, and I wouldn’t say that all human societies are of one mass and type, entirely determined by technologies. What is curious is the cultural responses and uses of new technologies.
IB: Capitalism not only alienates ideologies; turning left and right wing members into phony followers of the same thing (Capital), but also concepts like ‘Democracy’ have cast out their primitive meanings. Societies think they’re living in democracies (and this is the main difference between Foucault’s disciplinary and control societies), but W. Benjamin called Fascism an analogous system of our pseudo democracy. What does our Present-democracy mean? And what would be the meaning for Democracy in the Social democracy you defend?
JDT: This is such a good question, one that I find hard to answer. Has there ever been an ideal democracy, one that fully represents and responds to the collective will of its people? No, not that I’m aware of. In the UK, which is the only part of the world I can claim to have some knowledge of, women over the age of 21 were only allowed to vote from 1928 onwards – so, we’ve only been an equal democracy for 85 years. There are a great deal of problems with a system that allows a parliamentary vote every 5 years in a voting system which itself leads to disproportionate representation for the two major parties – the ‘first past the post’ system – whilst having an upper chamber of officials, the House of Lords, which cannot be elected. Perhaps the UK is an anomaly compared to the EU, I don’t know. But the broader challenge, and one that faced Spinoza, is why do the people often desire that which would seem to oppress them? In the UK, this came to attention with a recent election in 2011 that proposed to make the voting system slightly more fair – AV – which was democratically rejected!
To avoid feeling cynical and dismayed about democracies, I’d highlight that the proportion of people who actually turn up and vote in elections, and then vote for the winning side, is ultimately far smaller than anything that could be called a majority position. Most people will just not vote in an election, not out of contempt, but because the system doesn’t seem to represent or reflect any popular will. The democratic vote in an election is indifference, it is a statement of non-consent. Perhaps this is the position of Bartleby: I would prefer not to vote! In Europe, the local will of the people seems consistently overruled by Germany and the European Central Bank, in a move towards cuts and privatisation very similar to IMF ‘reforms’ of Latin American and African states during the 1970s, which worked to counter socialist revolutions and largely led to unemployment, poverty and devastation for the multitude. What does a vote mean, against that, or against lines of armed police, or against a mass media system that will only ever represent workers as racist and violent criminals? So the kind of social democracy I suggest is far different. In practice, it probably comes closest to the ideology and mass movement of the British Labour Party in 1945, but with an entirely different political system. I mention a historical example just to give shape to my thinking, but I think such a social democracy as I suggest has not yet been seen before. No real democracy has existed and survived – yet.
IB: Humanity has always being victim and oppressor of identical cycles; it’s The Eternal Recurrence of Nietzsche, Levi’s Demonism, the meanness of Bauman, but also the utterances of Kierkegaard; revealing that every generation starts and ends at the same point, because of an inherent essence that thwarts us evolving. This might mean we can only develop up to a predetermined spot. What do you think about this thought?
JDT: I can only claim familiarity with the first two writers you mention, but I believe that human nature, and what the philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries called ‘Man’, in booming and imperious tones, is a social and cultural construct. We are neither good nor evil: browsing through the theories and evidence of criminality and world history, I find Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ suspect. Your question asks, can we believe in human progress? Well, there is no denying it, to answer this question I have to bring our my moral values and yardsticks with me. If I take a somewhat socialist utilitarian stance, that a good society is one that provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number, I can see that some societies achieve this better than others. How? Well, if I measure the average physical and mental health, life expectancy, literacy, average earnings of individuals, rates of starvation, suicide, social mobility, equal access to resources, political and media freedom, and so on, I can find out which states are better than others. Much of these achievements have been made in states where capitalism and socialism form a ‘corrupt’ union, in the form of social democracy, say in the Scandinavian states.
This strays from the question though, in that the nation-state isn’t the idealised or total form of community: as I said earlier, today we live as a fragmented multitude, not as a singular people. But there are certain states and conditions that are better than others, and that will lead to greater happiness, toleration and freedom – which I define, following Spinoza, as the increased power to act in our own interests, based on reason, rather than the permission to buy a blue or red car based on whim. Progress is possible, and the poverty, illness, ignorance and illiteracy of our great-grandparents is no longer our lot, gladly.
Perhaps my answer isn’t clear enough though, and somehow this last point is hardest for me to make an affirmative statement about. Like many others, I lash between strategic optimism and cynical despair as the months pass and the scene remains the same. Negative Capitalism was written in a period of intense passion, I think it comes off in the prose: in those moments, the writing tears out of you, in a joy of sorts against that Gorgon which Levi claimed not have to seen, all the while harbouring it within him. Everything I suggest there – and it’s a great deal – comes out of a joy and passion that may well be inaccurate, arrogant, farfetched, whatever – I hope it comes to be confirmed or refuted by the wild actions, new desires and behaviours that I dream await us.