On the Significance of #OWS

story © Michael Betancourt, October 20, 2011 all rights reserved.


The current crisis continues not because those protesting the status quo are lazy, unwilling to work or demanding a government handout; it continues because of a fundamental problem with consumption-based capitalism that has accelerated under digital capitalism: the need for continuous growth. Immaterial production was posed as the solution to this failure when it emerged as a potentially dominant mode of production in the 1980s. The contemporary dominance of immaterialism—where the physical constraints presented by scarcity are systematically ignored and left out of consideration—depends on agnotology to confuse, deceive and obliviate certainty; with this elimination of the most basic grounds for conclusions and evaluations, the potential for dissent is greatly reduced and the effectiveness of dissent when it does appear is curtailed.

Agnotology relies upon ambivalence and those very systems developed to address uncertainty as the productive vehicles for greater uncertainty: it is a form of “anti-knowledge,” that undermines our knowledge-creating procedures themselves. This factor is what makes the agnotological the contrary of the epistemological, a negative form where established techniques of analysis produce, instead of understanding, a failure. The results of the extensive deployment of agnotological effects is a balkanization of culture into groups that not only do not talk civilly with each other, but cannot since the very space in which they could reach agreements has been successively demolished, leaving behind factions engaged in various types of culture and class war with each other.

This fracturing of society into warring camps is essential for the agnotological to flatten dissent: by keeping groups distracted, either through affective pursuits via television, sports, or drugs or in conflict with each other over—whether it is called “values,” “social norms,” or through the bogeyman of race, the long-gone “hippies,” or other all-too-familiar tactics—the purpose remains constant: the fragmentation of groups which otherwise might find common ground to protest their economic liquidation.

It is through the general adoption of fantasies of autonomy (self-sufficiency) against the ideals of social productivity that these divisions come to provide more than just a mechanism for dissipation. The embrace of the ideology of automation, built over the earlier “protestant work ethic,” that enables the current crisis—the failure to recognize that the contemporary problems arise not from some fault of those protesting, but through the organization of the society around them: it is the complete shift of values against social organization and cooperation which have brought about the current situation. It is not an issue of ‘responsibility’—it is a question of relationships between the ‘individual’ and ‘everyone else.’ Organized, social action for a common good has been transformed into an assault on the private, autonomous individual, who stands apart from society.

This transformation is reflected and refracted throughout social discourse in the United States, and is apparent in how individuals are now being blamed for their situation, thus bringing the ideology of automation clearly into focus: to be unsuccessful demonstrates a personal failing, rather than being evidence for some other, structural bias in how society is organized as a whole; this is neither an excuse, nor a justification for the current regime: it is an acknowledgement that capitalism generally, and digital capitalism in particular, create a winner-takes-all scenario, one in which there are only extremes of success and failure.

However, within such a structure, there necessarily are only a limited number of successes and a much greater number of failures—a result not of merit, hard work or personal responsibility. It is this disparity, and the paradox implicit in it, that has produced the current crisis: When the difference between success and failure is comfortable, healthy life vs. a slow death through illness, starvation and deprivation, it becomes obvious that all the potentials offered for human society through industrialization, technical advancement and the social supports called “civilization” have been transformed in a brutal way recognizable as social Darwinism: luck and established position masquerading as survival of the “fittest”; this is the meaning the “protestant work ethic” in the nineteenth century, and remains active as the ideology of automation in digital capitalism. The agnotological destruction of the potential for productive dialogue and the transformation of social, organized action into anathema are essential for this ideology to remain dominant.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  October 20, 2011  all rights reserved.

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