The Mourning of Work in For a New Critique of Political Economy: Bernard Stiegler, a Hacker Ethic, and Greece’s Debt Crisis

The Mourning of Work in For a New Critique of Political Economy: Bernard Stiegler, a Hacker Ethic, and Greece’s Debt Crisis

Harun Karim Thomas

“Even among the Greeks and Romans, the most advanced nations of antiquity, money reaches its full development, which is presupposed in modern bourgeois society, only in the period of disintegration.”- Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

In some unfortunate, uncanny way, the current Greek debt crisis bears modest resemblance to a 1994 episode of Full House, “Kissing Cousins.” Stavros, Jesse Katsopolis’ cousin from Greece, comes to San Francisco and swindles the Tanners out of money, unbeknownst to Jesse. Aware that the Tanners have become keen to his ways, Stavros makes amends with the family. His apologetic nature is short-lived, for Stavros devises a plan to get to Orlando, Florida, by convincing the family to organize a fundraising event for his village, which was allegedly ruined by a mudslide. The family tricks Stavros into admitting wrongdoing at the event, at which time Jesse finds out about his cousin’s misdeeds and shares with him a few choice words (and the reader should note that John Stamos plays both Jesse and Stavros):

Jesse: Stavros, how could you do this to me? To my family? I trusted you, man. I looked up to you.

Stavros: Oh, look at you. All I’m hearing in Greece is about Jesse in America. How wonderful job is, beautiful wife, perfect family…

Jesse: All right, maybe I do have all that. But I didn’t get it by stealing–I worked for it. Maybe that’s something you should try…You hurt me, Stavros. You may be family, but you’re out of here.

Twenty-one years later, Greek citizens have found themselves in a strikingly similar position to Stavros’, confronted by a sobering reality: $320 billion in debt and unemployment as high as 27.6 percent. According to a 2013 article in the New York Times, job-seekers aged 24 and younger underexperienced a rate of unemployment at 57 percent (Alderman). The dismal state of affairs did not deter 62% of the voters who, on July 5, elected to turn down an austerity plan offered by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank. The vote appeared to signal the end of a dependent Greece, even if it meant leaving the European Union, a risk that voters were willing to take, to prove their mettle and resilience. (There is no precedent for a country leaving the European bloc.) At the time of the vote, Greek banks had been closed for a week, and borrowing from international markets was implausible because of high interest rates (“What ‘No’ Vote Means”).

While the iteration of this problematic might be relatively new for Greece, Jacques Derrida shows us that the nature of this struggle resembles an earlier problematic with its roots in Greek antiquity. Tracing the origins of logos and the tense relations of writing and speech back to Plato’s Phaedrus, Derrida argues that writing, logos, father, chief, goods, capital, all are “metaphors” that must be “tirelessly questioned” (78). The primary metaphor in and of the text is the pharmakon, presented to us by Phaedrus, the definition of which is worth quoting at length here:

This pharmakon, this “medicine,” this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be—alternately or simultaneously—beneficent or maleficent. The pharmakon would be a substance—with all that that word can connote in terms of matter with occult virtues, cryptic depths refusing to submit their ambivalence to analysis, already paving the way for alchemy—if we didn’t have eventually to come to recognize it as antisubstance itself: that which resists any philosopheme, indefinitely exceeding its bounds as nonidentity, nonessence, nonsubstance; granting philosophy by that very fact the inexhaustible adversity of what funds it and the infinite absence of what founds it. (70)

Though it “is caught in a chain of significations” (95), the pharmakon, especially as writing, is also caught up in a series of oppositions (yes/no, good/evil, inside/outside, essence/appearance). It is both a “remedy” and “poison,” and as such, it is “that dangerous supplement that breaks into the very thing that would have liked to do without it yet lets itself at once be breached, roughed up, fulfilled, and replaced, completed by the very trace through which the present increases itself in the act of disappearing” (110). From this perspective, we can see how the bailout presents itself as pharmakon, that is, as both remedy and poison, which creates an ambivalence for the Greek voters: “You hurt me, Stavros. You may be family, but you’re out of here.”

In 2009, George Papandreou was elected Greece’s Prime Minister and Fitch downgraded Greece’s credit rating from A- to BBB+. That same year, Bernard Stiegler subsequently began putting forth several theses that eventually became part of Pour une nouvelle critique de l’économie politique, published that same year. The English edition, For a New Critique of Political Economy, published a year later, came at time when Papandreou promised to put Greece’s “house in order,” essentially calling for oiko-nomos, Greek for “law of the household,’ which represents a fundamental nature or economy of exchange, at any level (Elliott). This putting of one’s house in order would require some work, and given the digitalization, mechanization, and automatization of work, the question of work remains central to Stiegler’s critique. In For a New Critique, Stiegler frames this question in relation to political economy and pharmakon “and as an hypomnesic pharmakon, that is, as a technology of the spirit which, as tertiary retention, can just as well lead to the proletarianization of the life of the mind as it can lead to its critical intensification, when it finds itself confronted with what McKenzie Wark calls ‘abstraction’ ” (21). For Stiegler, as for Gido Berns, Antoine de Montchrestien, and E. J. Arnould, political economy remains tied to commerce and the exchange of savoir-faire (knowledge of how to make or do) and savoir-vivre (knowledge of how to live). For Greece and the rest of the world, the putting of one’s house in order, or the question of work, presupposes the pharmacological.

Feeling that contemporary philosophers have failed to take up seriously any critique of political economy, Stiegler sets out to “open a debate with Marx,” commemorating the 150th anniversary of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. His task becomes all the more challenging given that the productivist model of the nineteenth century that Marx had critiqued has already been superseded by the consumerist model of the twentieth century and the current libidinal economy. For Stiegler, this economy of desire operates “within a process of transindividuation through which libidinal energy is formed and accumulated, but this is also a process in which grammatization may either” create long circuits or provoke short ones (42). Transindividuation, the notion that co-individuation occurs with the “I” and the “We” simultaneously, determines social transformation, and during this process, long circuits of thought are established or breaks in thought, short circuits, threaten our existence. Drawing from philosopher Gilbert Simondon, Stiegler (with Rogoff) explains that the financial crises felt throughout the world can be attributed to short circuits, which are a result of inattentiveness. They write:

Attention is the reality of individuation in Gilbert Simondon’s sense of the terms: insofar as it is always both psychical and collective. Attention, which is the mental faculty of concentrating on an object, that is, of giving oneself an object, is also the social faculty of taking care of this object – as of another, or as the representative of another, as the object of the other: attention is also the name of civility as it is founded on philia, that is, on socialised libidinal energy. This is why the destruction of attention is both the destruction of the psychical apparatus and the destruction of the social apparatus (formed by collective individuation) to the extent that the later constitutes a system of care, given that to pay attention is also to take care. (Stiegler and Rogoff)

The direct result of inattentiveness is loss of knowledge and memory. If, in the Phaedrus, Socrates describes writing as the exteriorization of memory which leads to the loss of memory, the pharmakon gone wrong, Stiegler believes that pharmaka contribute to our feelings of “powerlessness,” “impotence,” and “obsolescence” the moment we realize that digital data replaces our need to remember anything (29). In an interview with Irit Rogoff, Stiegler recounts a time when it was policy for the Paris Opera to send the public scores of new productions before the performance. His grandfather, who died in 1935, drove locomotives and could read music. Stiegler mourns the loss of this exteriorization of memory, the short-circuiting of thought, not so much in the Freudian sense, though we can begin with Freud’s definition as a point of departure: “Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on” (243). Pascale-Anne Braule and Michael Naas offer another definition that includes the effects mourning has on us: “In mourning we find ourselves at a loss, no longer ourselves, as if the singular shock of what we must bear had altered the very medium in which it was to be registered. But even if the death of a friend appears unthinkable, unspeakable, we are nonetheless, says Derrida, called upon to speak, to break the silence, to participate in the codes and rites of mourning” (5). One can see the urgency with which Stiegler has heeded the call to speak philosophically about political economy, particularly when the acceleration of technology continually transforms political economy and employment.

In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee examine how technology affects job, wages, and employment, particularly in the United States. They identify three popular explanations for unemployment: cyclicality, stagnation, and the “end of work.” As proponents of cyclicality, economist Paul Krugman and former Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag contend that the economy hasn’t grown enough to generate more jobs. Those who believe that stagnation is the problem, like Leo Tilman and Edmund Phelps, contend that there is “a long-term decline in America’s ability to innovate and increase productivity” (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 4). Others in the second group attribute the decline not to a shortcoming in America’s ability to innovate, but to the ability of other countries to develop at a more rapid pace. The third group, those who anticipate the “end of work,” include Jeremy Rifkin, who argues in his 1995 book The End of Work that technology is bringing about these sweeping changes and will replace workers. Brynjolfsson and McAfee are not as pessimistic as those in the “end of work” camp and believe that not enough attention is being paid to the acceleration of technology (9). For obvious reasons, Race Against the Machine falls short of explaining the failure of innovation and ultimately unemployment in other parts of the world; still, the book is instructive in identifying possible problems with Greece’s debt crisis. Polish Greek banker turned clothing designer Mareva Grabowski offers an additional problem as she laments the “brain drain” occurring in Greece and the problem that this causes for spurring innovation and improving the economy (Olsen).

Despite the efforts of several entrepreneurs in the country, however, signs of innovation are slow to evolve, according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review. Alexander S. Kritikos and Klaus F. Zimmerman reported that Greece ranked lower than any other country in the Eurozone in the European Commission’s “Innovation Performance Index” and appeared almost dead center in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business indicator,” which ranks 189 countries. Still, what Grabowski regards as brain drain is considered an asset to Kritikos and Zimmerman. For them, Greece must find a way to tap into the expertise of the scientists and the entrepreneurial spirit of the small businesses that leave the country. In any event, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, and Kritikos and Zimmerman have an optimistic view of the status of unemployment in the U.S. and the potential to overcome the recent Greek crisis, respectively. Collectively, these writers see no inherent problem with work as such.

Stiegler believes that the problem is the “end of work” and that Rifkin and others are not looking closely enough at it and “the tendential fall in the rate of profit,” which refers to Marx’s argument from chapter 13 of the third volume of Capital. In it, Marx describes the manner in which goods are produced and the labor required to produce those goods. Eventually, the material used to make those products, “c,” and the wages necessary to produce those goods to allow for a livelihood, “v,” must be supplemented by additional surplus labor, “s,” in order to create more value and the potential for profit. The relationship between surplus labor, s, constant capital, c, and a living wage, v, is represented as s/(c + v) and referred to as the rate of profit. Over time, the rate of profit has a tendency to fall, when constant capital evolves and labor is effected through cost-cutting measures, (c/v), which Marx called the “organic composition of capital.” Having considered the tendential fall in the rate of profit, Marx and Engels were correct to predict the exhaustion of labor as a result of market forces. What they could not have anticipated, according to Stiegler, is “the role of exploitation and functionalization of a new energy, which is not the energy of the proletarianized producer (labor as pure labor force), nor the motor energy of a new industrial apparatus” (25). He suggests, in deconstructive fashion, that it is “rather the energy of the proletarianized consumer—that is, the consumer’s libidinal energy, the exploitation of which changes the libidinal economy and, with it, the economy as a whole, to the point where the former is destroyed just like the latter, and the former by the latter” (25). And this relation can be represented by pharmacological inscriptions, for “[g]rammatization is irreducibly pharmacological” (Stiegler 42).

To consider the role of work in a libidinal economy, Stiegler defers to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, but it might be just as instructive to consider Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. In it, Lyotard claims, “there are no primitive societies or savages at all, we are all savages, all savages are capitalized-capitalists” (127). We would be mistaken to think of ourselves otherwise. How else would we account for the death drive, jouissance, perversities, and libidinal intensities? In a moment of self-reflection, Lyotard recounts the number of books and pages that political intellectuals have produced, “ceaselessly refilling the pot-boiler of speech […] but also multiplying the chances of jouissance, scraping up intensities, wherever possible, and never being sufficiently dead” (115). The intellectual too “incline[s] toward the proletariat,” who tends to hate the intellectual for what he represents. It is this position that encourages Lyotard to insist that we should not criticize Marx. Instead, we should be laughing at critique “since it is to maintain oneself in the field of the criticized thing and in the dogmatic, indeed paranoiac, relation of knowledge” (93). Why Stiegler fails to take up these last two points, inclination toward the proletariat and avoidance of critique, is somewhat interesting, but Stiegler writes of a new form of proletarianization determined by consumption, which destroys savoir-faire in the service of creating a labor force. The loss of knowledge is particularly disheartening, even if it is a knowledge that, as Lyotard might argue, leads to perversities. At best, “… the fact remains that knowledge has no final legitimacy outside of serving the goals envisioned by the practical subject, the autonomous collectivity” (Lyotard 36). In any event, The Postmodern Condition allows Stiegler to think through capitalism differently. Furthermore, the libidinal economy is as much Freud as it is Lyotard, suggests Stiegler.

Freud defines this libidinal economy in terms of civilization, which is a “process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this” (111). Work alone will not bind peoples together. The death drive, a natural agressiveness, combined with Eros, defines humankind. It is this struggle, between Eros and death, which makes man what he is. The object of this desire or affection, the pharmakon, serves also as the object upon which the energies of the death drive are focused. For Stiegler, this object contains the pharmacological inscription; it is the grammatization that leads to the proletarianization articulated by Marx and Engels, and articulated as tertiary retentions by Stiegler. Husserl refers to primary memories as retentions; secondary memory is a recollection (35). Tertiary retention is “a mnemotechnical exteriorization of secondary retentions which are themselves engendered by primary retentions” (Stiegler 9). For Husserl, the retentions are preceded by perceptions (33). In any event, once these retentions and perceptions are grammatized, proletarianization occurs. What complicates things are the protentions of investment, or anticipations within the market. Capitalism is predicated on protentions, or systems of credit, that eventually collapse. As early as 1999, the European Union saw issues with Greece and its heavy dependence on borrowing, which is why it refused to allow Greece to join the euro that year when the new currency began. (Stavros, you cannot come in here.) Harry Wallop, Consumer Affairs Editor for The Telegraph, explains what happened a year later when the EU allowed Greece to join: “there were suspicions at the time that Greece was operating a ‘limbo dance’—squeezing its figures to hit the stringent Euro criteria, only for them to flip them back to dangerous levels once it had entered. Indeed, many believe Greece simply lied about is figures to gain entry.” In 2004, Greece admitted under-reporting figures, and by the time of the Wall Street collapse in 2008, Greece had become the epicenter of the debt crisis in Europe. The year 2008 becomes a particularly specious year for Stiegler, marking the tendential fall of the rate of profit, in his mourning of work.

Stiegler sees two possibilities for redemption: the first, a hacker ethics that “could open the field for a new struggle: a struggle for abstraction opposing the class of hackers to those that McKenzie Wark calls the vectoralists.” Within this new struggle, we have proletarianization being countered by “a new regime of psychic and collective individuation and, with it, the possibility of a new process of transindividuation opening onto an unprecedented politico-economic perspective: an economy of contribution” (48). Pekka Himanen identifies seven values of a hacker: passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring, and creativity. Passion typifies the hacker’s relationship to work, and this passion, according to Himanen, resembles the passion of the academic world. Eric Raymond, defender of hacker culture, describes it this way: “To do the Unix philosophy right, you need to have (or recover) that attitude. You need to care. You need to play. You need to be willing to explore” (qtd. in Himanen 6). Burrell Smith expands the definition of a hacker to include anyone who does anything, as long as he or she is concerned with “craftsmanship and caring about what you’re doing” (qtd. in Himanen 7). The work ethic of the hacker stands in contradistinction to the Protestant work ethic, characterized by a sense of duty and obligation, particularly within capitalism. If the hacker’s work ethic is derived from the academy, the Protestant ethic comes from the monastery. According to Himanen, over time, the academy lost its way and now resembles a monastery with its sender-receiver model (76). “[N]o free person should learn anything like a slave,” argued Plato, but the monastic rule has organized the academy and can be summed up by Benedict as follows: “It belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen,” has ruled the academy (qtd. in Himanen 76).

The second possibility for redemption requires us to rethink tendencies. Stiegler regards a hacker ethic as “the reconstitution of positive externalities and the support of work practices stemming from otium (that is, from noetic intermittence) [which] is the necessary condition for the reconstitution of long circuits of transindividuation” (57). These work practices presuppose a system of care, and because there will never be paradise on earth, it just makes sense to organize ourselves by way of systems of care, if the alternative, carelessness, has led to nothing more than economic crises. The tendential fall in the rate of profit leads to carelessness, a tendency that Stiegler finds unacceptable (80). Instead, “we must reactivate an inherent tendency toward elevation in human societies, and which was translated, at a certain stage of grammatization, and via the hypomnesic pharmakon, into the culture of consistencies of the skhole and otium” (120). Instead of allowing the consumerist counter-tendencies to negate the tendential fall in the rate of profit, there must be other tendencies to replace it. So, for this possibility, we must consider two concessions: (1) Himanen’s suggestion that we ought to create based on passion and care, not for money; and (2) Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s point, that “economic progress comes from constant innovation in which people race with machines. Human and machine collaborate together in a race to produce more, to capture markets, and to beat other teams of humans and machines” (54). With these two, we realize the potential for alternate tendencies with the digital revolution, as it invites us to re-envision how we approach work, often in the face of fear, in spite of our preoccupation with machines replacing us. We get closer to accepting that “in the new pharmacological context created by digital networks, a contrary arrangement clearly becomes imaginable: one can imagine that tendencies to investment could be combined with sublimatory tendencies” (Stiegler 122). Thus, we must be capable of normalizing relations in the libidinal economy to serve a higher cultural purpose.

On the level of critique, the book does what it sets out to do. For a New Critique of Political Economy stands as a deconstructive call to arms for philosophers, makes a worthy attempt to look at Marx in the 21st century in the way of consumption and production, provides an accurate assessment of the libidinal economy, observes the proletarianization and “systemic stupidity” in the Western hemisphere, locates the pharmacological within grammatization, and insists on a solution that doubles as a hacker ethic. But it also sometimes misses what any deconstructive reading would always already have presupposed: violence, war machines. When reading, one gets the impression that the libidinal economy exists solely as a consequence of jouissance, but the worst of it involves the exchange of underage children across time zones. It is indeed one thing to suggest that we should tend toward a higher cultural purpose, but when we sometimes neglect to address the difficult choices we must make and problems that must be overcome, a text can seem a bit disarming or disingenuous, at its worst. Still, Stiegler’s proposition is a worthy one, as it serves as a pause for reflection. While, indeed, the “spread of industrial hypomnesic apparatuses causes our memories to pass into machines” (For a New Critique 30), there is another set of machines that secretly organizes transindividuation and individuation often without our awareness, or perhaps it is with our awareness, unwittingly.

In an earlier work, we can find Stiegler drawing a parallel between the art of working land and the consequent violence against the land. He writes, “This violence must temper and sublimate itself in a taking care of this earth. The farmer causes nature to suffer, but while making nature suffer, he makes of it a culture—insofar, however, as he dedicates to it a cult. This cult is a sublimation, in the sense Freud gives to the word: the sublimation of that violence by which the farmer throws nature into disequilibrium” (“Take Care”). From the land, we eventually arrive at the house, where indeed things must be put in order. A week after Greece voted no on the austerity plan, Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras responded to his predecessor’s call to put the house in order by agreeing to an even stricter austerity measure that calls for $12 billion in spending cuts to receive a third international bailout at $53 billion (Squires). As bizarre as this turn of events might seem, for the Greeks, it was also a necessary and probable one: “They want the bailout, because they know how desperately they need one. But they also wanted to reject it first, as a sort of prideful and cathartic gesture, so that they might then accept it with their heads held a little bit higher. On the streets of Athens, this is roughly the reasoning one discovers after talking to enough people for long enough, though in the process an outsider should expect to feel a bit confused from time to time” (Shuster). Greek citizens want to put their house in order on their own terms, but the tricky part is instilling confidence among those in the international community, upon which they rely.

One can only imagine the message that Jesse Katsopolis might have had for Stavros today, given how digitalized music has become and gotten caught up in a chain of libidinal significations. One wonders if Stavros would have even felt the same envy or jealousy for Jesse, whose career as a live musician would have been even worse off now than it had been in the 90s. Surely, the phrase Full House takes on new meaning in this context. If the show then had much more to do with the family unit—at the end of the series run, four adults and five children lived in the Tanner home—the title today would seem to suggest the risky business of work in putting one’s house in order. Perhaps Jesse is a little more empathetic to Stavros today. His admonition would take on a different tune, something that would suggest that we play with the hand with which we are dealt. He might sound closer to Stiegler, who would urge his cousin to refocus his hacker ethics and “take care. The family, indeed the entire world is now watching your every move, Stavros.”  

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