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“Something in all men profoundly rejoices at seeing a car burn”: Pure Expenditure against Production

This is the second of two blog posts by Frederick H. Pitts that reassess the importance and impact of Jean Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production. Read the first post here. Where the first post dealt with Baudrillard’s criticism of the productivism of political economy and its Marxist critique, the second deals with the implications of Baudrillard’s critical analysis for any radical alternative to production.

In the first post, we explored Baudrillard’s critique of productivism. The attributing of some kind of essential humanity to labor is identified by Baudrillard as one of the most pernicious effects of the productivism in political economy, Marx included. Indeed, humanism itself can be seen as the “product” of political economy (Baudrillard, 22). Taking over the “phantasm” of “labor as the human essence” from political economy, Baudrillard suggests Marx projected this understanding upon the working class as “their central means of self-comprehension.” Rather than maintaining a narrow fixation on the condition of one’s exploitation as labor as the means by which this exploitation can be transcended, Baudrillard argues that workers must liberate themselves from the status of “labor-power,” and “think themselves under another sign than that of production” (Poster, 3).

Under capitalism, workers are exploited not only as a result of the machinations of the system, which dominates them, but also by the code, which co-opts and coerces them. The reinforcement and perpetuation of this code in traditional Marxism ironically services the needs of capitalism. It generates this effect by means of popularizing the myth that labor-power is each individual’s “fundamental human potential” rather than a capitalist social relation. As Baudrillard writes:

And in this Marxism assists the cunning of capital. It convinces men that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the much more radical hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power, as the “inalienable” power of creating value by their labor. (Baudrillard, 31)

Nietzsche’s dictum that “the workers have elevated into a cardinal value the very sign of their slavery, just as the Christians did with suffering,” is quoted favorably by Baudrillard (Baudrillard, 155). Whereas campaigns by workers for their “right to work” and the quest for other demands internal to the logic of capitalism only maintain the ethic of the system, what Baudrillard calls the “Leftists” or the “social groups” make no such demands. Instead, they are “demobilized, demarked, excluded,” and it is in these subjects that “the ethic of the system crumbles” (Baudrillard, 140). The traditional focus of many Marxist political programs on mainly economic agenda only serves to reinforce an “alibi against the more serious subversion that threatens it in the symbolic order.” In this perpetuation and reinforcement of the economic alibi, Marxism is itself “exploited by capitalism as a force in ideological labor.” Moreover, any account that gives some deterministic primacy to the economic in a state of blissful unawareness of the contemporary political economy of the sign is “‘objectively’ idealist and reactionary,” according to Baudrillard (Baudrillard, 139).

The attachment of the sign of the economic to every spontaneous insurrection under the sun is a commonplace in the Marxist tradition. For Baudrillard, bursts of revolutionary activity governed by the “pleasure principle” and the “radicality of revolt”—such as that witnessed in “the destruction of machines, in pre-Marxist, utopian and libertarian discourse as well as in the ideas sustaining ‘the cursed poets or the sexual revolt”—sought a new and more radical “total symbolic configuration of life.” But under the spell of Marxism, these strands of rebellion are abstracted out of movements in political economy, and, at worst, sacrificed as less important moments of the unfolding of history through the “development of productive forces.” It is this sense of finality from which revolutionary activity must escape, of some end toward which our efforts are driven. The “here and now” of revolution must be reinstated. Against the “imposition” of the meaning of revolutionary finality, Baudrillard instead celebrates “the radicality of desire which, in its non-meaning, cuts through all finality” (Baudrillard, 154–55).

The concept of classes as a series of objective, historically determined reference points is attributable, in fact, to one of these “classes”: the bourgeoisie. When the bourgeoisie “succeeds in trapping the proletariat” in this conceptual framework, “it has already won the game.” Baudrillard goes further: “In a sense, there has always been and there will always be only one class, the bourgeoisie.” The bourgeoisie owes its victory to its successful attempt to “enclose . . . in an order of definition” and attach the sign of “proletariat” to the workers. The definition of a proletariat “rationalizes” the workers’ movement as a fixture of capitalism, as a part of the “industrial order.” For Baudrillard, the real class struggle centers upon the refusal of these terms and the “being and consciousness of class.” In its self-negation, the proletariat simultaneously negates the bourgeoisie, and vice versa. In this way, there is no one class or revolutionary subject that can effect the destruction and transcendence of class relations (Baudrillard, 157–59). The Marxist paradigm not only provides a poor apparatus through which to rethink class struggle, but also does not allow us to escape the subordination of desire to “productive” finality. As Baudrillard concludes, “[t]o enclose the ‘exploited’ within the single historical possibility of taking power has been the worst diversion the revolution has ever taken” (Baudrillard, 167). It is toward a desire that exceeds this finality that Baudrillard suggests we turn to discover an unproductive infinitude whereby events may satisfy that “[s]omething in all men” that “profoundly rejoices in seeing a car burn” (Baudrillard, 141).

For Baudrillard, traditional proletarian demands such as those for higher wages, better working conditions, job enrichment, and so on, only serve to reinforce the status of the worker as “the subject of the labor system” (Baudrillard, 105). Against this, Baudrillard outlines possibilities for opposition to the political economy of the sign and the law of the code. In so doing, Poster suggests that Baudrillard’s account draws upon the earlier theoretical elaboration of the sign in the work of Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre saw the “signals” produced by capitalism as a means of sealing up the meaning of statements in order to ensure their indisputability. As Poster asserts, “[b]y collapsing the signified into the signifier, the signal leaves no room for judgment or criticism.” For Lefebvre, the spoken word, conducted in person, presents the centrifugal force that can destabilize these “signal'”. This Lefebvre called la parole. Baudrillard’s outline of the potential challenges to be posed against the reproduction of the code follows Lefebvre’s championing of la parole.

Baudrillard suggests that capitalism leaves a series of “non-marked” symbolic positions whose “speech does not count” and such sites occupy a “zero point” of the code. These sites both delineate the workers’ oppression and marginality, but they also promise the possibility of their ultimate rebellion against the code to overcome it. As such, they are stacked squarely against the circulation of the code rather than simply serving as conduits for its unequal distribution throughout society. This opposition is manifested by means of speech, of la parole. The speech act consists of the free and reciprocal exchange of meanings outside and above their abstraction in the sign. It is pure symbolic expenditure, which witnesses an absolute loss rather than any kind of relative gain, a “discharge of energy and meaning.” This oppositional stance runs counter to the familiar political economy of gain and accumulation, where every individual loss appears only as an instance of investment in a new cycle of profit (Poster, 10–11).

Rather than the “material’ wealth of traditionally considered commodity value, symbolic exchange stems not from production but from exchange, “destruction, the deconstruction of value, transgression, or discharge” (Baudrillard, 43). Any concept of “non-labor” as the opposite to labor, writes Baudrillard, is bound to fall back upon productivist political economy, in that “the pure form of labor shines forth in non-labor” (Baudrillard, 41). Any anti-productivist mode of resistance must center upon symbolic exchange as an attack upon the code by which capital coerces subjects.

This argument has implications for the way in which we conceive of anti-capitalist political action. Trade unions and labor parties must cede the oppositional ground to the demands of social movements composed of desires and symbolic expenditure that exceed and cannot be recouped within a discourse of either production or its flipside, non-production. Plainly, the whole ethico-poltical edifice of capitalism must be challenged. In part, then, Baudrillard comes to the conclusion that the productivist inadequacy of both political economy and its Marxist critique must be themselves be urgently critiqued on the symbolic level of the code. While Baudrillard champions the burning car as the pure expenditure of symbolic exchange par excellence, it is the immanent critique of political economy and its critical counterpart that may in fact mark the beginning of any symbolic attack of la parole against the code. Far from hitting the streets armed with signs and placards heralding the “the right to work” and “jobs, growth and justice,” perhaps the implication of Baudrillard’s thesis is “criticize first, and then do nothing”: that we should instead take to our desks and discussion groups. In other cases, we should do nothing at all, so as not to be put in the position whereby our actions can be put to productive ends.

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