Baudrillard: When human rights and democracy began to circulate like oil and capital


15 Nov , 2019  

In his current essay “Europa Fata Morgana” Georg Seeßlen speaks of post-democracy as a permanent state of emergency, in which the multiple crises (war against terror, financial crisis, Greek crisis, refugee crisis, etc.) fulfilled the function of maintaining it. Seeßlen writes: “The state of emergency can only be maintained if a problem is not solved but set into serial oscillations. Here and as long as we find ourselves in a permanent state of emergency, in a kind of crisis management as entertainment (in a double sense), the great projects of dwindling modernity: democracy, enlightenment, humanism, are suspended.” This is largely consistent with Jean Baudrillard’s diagnosis in his book “The Spirit of Terrorism” that today the universal is absorbed by the global. (Baudrillard 2011: 50f.) Baudrillard first states a “deceptive analogy” between the concepts of the universal and the global. While human rights, freedom and democracy can be attributed to the universal values of Western Enlightenment, globalisation is characterised by “techniques, market, tourism, finance, information”. Like Seeßlen, Baudrillard sees Western universality dwindling, while globalization is apparently irreversible. Every culture that tries to universalize itself loses its singularity and must inevitably die off, Baudrillard diagnoses. He states that universalization, which in the Enlightenment still presented itself as a discourse on progress, today takes place as an endless proliferation of values, including their neutralization. He writes: “The same happens, among other things, to human rights and democracy; their expansion corresponds to their weakest definition, their maximum entropy. (ibid.: 51). Human rights, democracy and freedom today circulate globally in an entropic mode. Baudrillard seems to be torn back and forth; on the one hand, like Seeßlen, he notes the suspension of Western guiding values or even their demise in globalization, which in turn has only universalized exchange; on the other hand, he speaks of the entropic and at the same time endless circulation of universal values in the capitalist mode. Baudrillard writes: “First of all, the market, the promiscuity of all exchanges and products, the continued flow of money, is globalizing. In cultural terms this means the promiscuity of all signs, of all values, that is pornography … At the end of this process there is no longer any difference between the global and the universal, the universal itself becomes globalized, democracy and human rights circulate just like any other global product, such as oil or capital” (ibid.: 51). That Baudrillard seems undecided and does not consistently take the second position may be due to the fact that he subliminally equates modernity, technoculture and capital/capitalism. Following this equation, postmodernism must then be regarded as a special cultural formation or as a phase of capitalism, which is optionally described as information capitalism, consumer society, cognitive or simulative or cybernetic capitalism. It should not be denied that in such a philosophically overdetermined representation of capitalism the naturalization of capitalism, as noted by Ellen Meiksins Woods, takes place. She writes: “The specificity of capitalism is lost again in the continuities of history, and the capitalist system is naturalized in the inevitable process of the eternally rising bourgeoisie. (Meiksins Wood 2015: 220) But Woods also remains imprecise at this point because it does not distinguish between capital and capitalism.

Capitalism is to be understood as a thoroughly heterogeneous historical formation – from an economic, political and cultural point of view – but one that is essentially determined by the production and circulation logics of capital. Besides the dominant mode of production of capital, capitalism also has non-capital-determined modes of production, be they neofeudal, slum-like, corrupt and criminal economies, but also cooperative economies, which are only partially coupled to capital or not at all tied to it (only about 40-50% of all work done worldwide is directly subject to capital relations). Capital, on the other hand, should be understood as a conceptual and semiotic “model” or as a differential system whose production and circulation cycles follow a specific immanent legality that keeps it in equilibrium as it makes it crisis-like. Capital and its as the motor (which cannot be separated from a relation) of the formation “capitalism”, in which the economy in the last instance determines all other areas such as politics, culture, art, science, etc.. This can be understood as “capitalocentric”, and this concept is also directed against the fashionable concept of the “anthropocene”. (Cf. Moore 2015) Louis Althusser speaks at this point of the capitalist mode of production, which he understands as a conceptual object or object that implies the relation between productive forces and relations of production. (Althusser/Balibar 1972) According to Althusser, the capitalist mode of production is the determinant, complex “core form” of an even more complex capitalist social formation that is pervaded by several modes of production. The theoretical analysis of the historically existing capital that articulates itself today as globalization requires the inclusion of as many empirical facts as possible. Within globalization, there are a number of unequal links, be it the nationally operating individual capitals, the multinational corporations, the respective national total capital, or the states. Yet these entities have a single common interest, namely the maintenance of the capital system. The globally networked context, also called the imperialist chain by some Marxist authors, must – come what may – be reproduced. Globalization is not simply to be understood as the sum of the actions of agents, but as the locationless site of the expanded reproduction of capital. The digital information and communication technologies and the corresponding discourse on global networks provide the material-discursive infrastructures for this purpose.

In this context, Baudrillard’s statement must be understood that the absorption of the universal by the global involves homogenization on the one hand, and fragmentation and discrimination on the other, which are characterized by growing exclusion, one thinks of the useless share of humanity, of the nomads of labor and migrants. Seeßlen writes about the exclusion: “One excludes from the market those who do not make a profit (namely the right people), one excludes from work those who do not bring enough “performance” and will to exploitation and self-exploitation, one excludes from education those who do not join the elite formation, one excludes from supply those who cause too much costs, and so on. Neo-liberalism excludes not only people, but also economic dreams, cultures, views, and finally entire continents”.

As long as the universal values still had a certain legitimacy, the singularities could be integrated into a system as differences. Baudrillard discovered the mantra of the philosophy of difference in consumption even before Laruelle launched his comprehensive attack on it. Baudrillard writes in this regard: “However, this compulsion to relativity is decisive insofar as it forms the frame of reference for a never-ending differential positioning”. (Baudrillard 2015: 90) Now, however, in the course of globalization, it is over: “…but now they (the values) no longer succeed, since the triumphant gloabalization makes tabula rasa with all differences and values by introducing a completely indifferent culture or unculture.”. (Baudrillard 2011: 53). Here, too, Baudrillard remains conceptually imprecise, but does recognize a tendency. Randy Martin has shown in his book “Empire of Indifference” that indifference and endless circulation belong together and that even today the asymmetrical, small wars circulate in the global network. (Martin 2007) What’s more, the corresponding interventions revolve around the possibility of circulating, in contrast to the possibility of proclaiming sovereignty. For Martin, this is a shift similar to that of a shareholder holding the shares of a company to that of a derivatives trader generating wealth by managing risks. The unintended consequence of this risk management, which Martin sees at work both in global financialization and in the U.S. Empire, is the mere intensification of the volatility of what it involves. This results in a vicious cycle of destabilization and derivative wars, a characterization that Martin calls the “empire of indifference. This empire no longer distinguishes itself through progress or development, but promises its occupants only the management of a perpetual presence of risk possibilities. In the totalitarian, i.e. indifferent view of neoliberalism, there is ultimately only capital, including human capital. Consequently, current neoliberal policies intend and multiply the constant modulation of the economic risk for the individual and the statistical sorting of the population, namely into those who are successful in view of the risk and those who are definitely not – and nothing else means simply being “at-risk”. And accordingly, neoliberal governance tends to move from the closed institution to the digital network, from the institution to the process, from the command to the (repressive) self-organization. Although it contains a political program, neoliberalism is anti-social, even more so the anti-social is the modus operandi of the neoliberal state, and this at the same time means indifference as part of its public grimace. Risk-polituations include governance as the governmentality of indifference. However, governance does not simply overlook the hedging of interests against interests, but tests the population’s ability to produce interests in the name of speculative capital accumulation. This kind of risk management implies the universal circulation of monetary capital and with it the circulation of values, human rights and democracy. Circulation in turn corresponds to digital networking or the screen of the global as a one-dimensional universe.

Baudrillard here again states a tendency: capitalization and the digital networks that correspond to it emerge a gentle destruction, a communicative and genetic violence that is virally processed and seeks totalitarian consensus. Whether Baudrillard’s theory of the viral is appropriate here or not, it is true that this kind of violence attempts to exclude all negativity and singularity. What is more, and this in turn calls into question the concept of homogenization and indifference: today, comprehensive inclusion can also take place via divergence or disjunction. Disjunction is a pure relation, a movement of reciprocal and at the same time asymmetrical implications that express difference as such. And difference is communication, infection or virulence through heterogeneities, whereby networking here consists in the fact that different sides communicate with each other in such a way that no unity, fusion or synthesis comes about. Inclusive disjunction means to put foreign elements into communication without a uniform logic being required. Today we have to think pessimistically about connectivity. Deleuze speaks of communication as a commercial professional training, of marketing and the transformation of philosophy into advertising slogans. He counters this with the voids of non-communication that can escape both the circle of communication and control as well as the diffusion of differences through inclusion. Within the system of inclusion, difference is a means by which power and capital perpetuate their domination. The effects of this temporal modulation are events, a set of unverifiable stories, unverifiable statistics and untenable justifications. The accelerating speed makes network media like the Internet a bubbling soup for conspiracies and insinuations, inasmuch as the sheer volume of participants and the incredible speed of information accumulation leads to new material for many other conspiracy theories already circulating in the time when a conspiratorial theory is buried. Everything is circulating. The panoptic view of the sovereign is today supplemented and expanded by the calculation and management of risk, with the agents circulating as information shadows. Total control of information shadows is achieved by algorithmic containment. Risk management is a constitutive part of the circulation of money capital and with its global circulation everything else begins to circulate, including democracy and human rights.

François Laruelle speaks here of “universal capital” instead of “capital”, not in the sense of a historical-social formation, but of a universal “logic” to which all economic, social and political phenomena are assigned and subordinated. The monetary profit production of capital today encompasses a general surplus production that extracts the added value of money not only from labor, but from communication, from the speed and urgency of change. And capital even generates the surplus through the production of knowledge, images, marketing and slogans. (Laruelle 2012: 16f.) It may extract it from democracy and human rights. This “universal capital” works more stubbornly than any other historical formation to seize the surplus. It is more active and persecutes, sorts and guides people more intensively than any previous form of control, it acts softer and at the same time more deceitful than all previous forms of frontal attack, but remains perverse like any form of espionage and accusation and at the same time appears less brutal than open annihilation, less ritualized than the Inquisition – or to put it briefly: The “universal capital” proceeds softly and dispersively, instantaneously and maliciously. It is pure harassment. (ibid.)

We can conclude from this that capital always also needs its philosophical and political legitimation. And so it allows not only money, credit and itself to circulate as capital, but also its legitimatory discourses, up to the most general values, human rights and democracy. As such circulating signs, however, the universal values, in which Baudrillard is to be agreed, neutralized and differentiated at the same time, are emptied of meaning. Indeed: “Their expansion corresponds to the weakest definition, their maximum entropy.”

Althusser, Louis/Balibar, Étienne (1972a): Reading Capital I. Hamburg.

Baudrillard, Jean (2011): The Spirit of Terrorism.Vienna

  • (2015): The consumer society. Its myths, its structures. Berlin.

Laruelle, François (2012): Struggle and Utopia at the End Times of Philosophy. Minneapolis.

  • (2015): Introduction to Non-Marxism.Minneapolis.

Martin, Randy (2007): An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management.Durham.

Meiksins Wood, Ellen (2015): The Origin of Capitalism. A search for clues. Hamburg.

Foto:Bernhard Weber

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