The idea of selling the courageous message of a brand, as opposed to a product, intoxicated these CEOs, providing as it did an opportunity for seemingly limitless expansion. After all, if a brand was not a product, it could be anything. [Naomi Klein, No Logo, 22]
The BwO is what remains when you take everything away. What you take away is precisely the phantasy, and significances and subjectifications as a whole. [Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 168]
My first guilty feeling in putting these quotes beside each other is that it’s a cheap-shot, or a lazy shot at least. No Logo was one of those Important Books of the noughties, but we have – it would seem – so completely absorbed everything it says that we can afford to be dismissive and cynical about it. Having a copy of it on your bookshelf is an invitation for a masochistic circle-jerk of the right-on. Naomi Klein as the Alain de Botton of the left.
This is, of course, an expression of what’s going on in my mind when it gets crippled by an attack of the lefty scruples, a paralysis of irony. I should just get over it. Anyway, what I value about this book is that it is a proper piece of journalism. It is about the facts, and about being on the ground in places where I will never be but nevertheless that I think we should know something about, given that these liminal realms of the Special Economic Zones, etc. And the most salient fact I found was when she tells us that Philip Morris paid $12.6 billion for Kraft, or six times what it was worth on paper.
The notion of “on paper” is interesting here, because it has a dual identity. There is the idea of it somehow being virtual (eliding the virtuality of wealth into apparent insignificance), such that Ireland was full of millionaires on paper at the height of the boom, but now the poor darlings haven’t a cent to their name, and so we’ll all just shell out for the profligate fuckers. In contrast to this, Klein gives us something else, which is the notion of X millions or billions… that is not even written on paper. This would be the equivalent of a millionaire…on air? It is the making virtual of what we should already bloody regard as virtual.
We see that it is somehow still sufficiently remarkable a thing that Philip Morris spent that much on Kraft that it is in dire need of explanation. Thus we have the “brand”, and its merry attendant “added value”. Just as there was surplus value (on paper), now there is added value (on air), because as the former was the excess of human labour and productivity, the latter is effectively the excess of this excess. In our standard, vulgar ontology, the brand is ‘literally nothing’. What we have is the world as separated into things and concepts, and it may be that the business world is way ahead of us in terms of developing new ontologies.
The world of making “things”, the world of tangible products is that which is essentially finite. This finitude has very specific implications, such as the logic of zero sum game, the essential rapacity of voracious markets spreading over the earth. Thus for Lenin imperialism is famously the highest stage of capitalism, most significantly its fifth feature, the “territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers” (to be honest, I think more readily of Agent Smith in The Matrix describing humans to Morpheus as a virus, but I easily prefer both of the above to Hardt and Negri). The “lumpy object purveyors” [Klein 22] use an ontology of being, of static objects. In times of economic crisis, we collectively freak out, and run home to our fantasy cottage in the countryside, where we buy organic cider and sit in our previously loved chairs, underneath some Morris textiles (no, the other one). It’s in the call to return to manufacturing, to stop living beyond our means, and all those other condescending platitudes which say “no, knowing that things are virtual is for those of us who can afford it.” A more sober examination of this is a 2009 article on TechCrunch, “Does America Need to Make Things?”
The brand, in contrast, has an escape velocity of its own making, which
allows demands expansion. Consolidation does not exist for the brand, as it ought to for the commodity. In financial services this expansion attained a complexity and a hysterical fervour which produced leveraging and betting on futures-to-the-power-of-themselves-many-times-over. This brought the unreality of the brand (or the brand’s recognition of the unreality/virtuality of our economic world, the knowledge that there is no fundament) to bear on that weirdest and most intangible of entities, namely money as value. (Admittedly, I am totally messing around with a timeline here, but if it’s evocative that’s enough for me).
So then, the philosophy of possibility, the ontology of process is not completely novel and specific to critical theories, critical philosophy, postmodernity, etc. Indeed it may be too integrated for being too thought. We might find it difficult to ascribe the character of an philosophical avant garde to the CEOs of the Fortune 500 for the past 20+ years, but we may have no choice. The postmodern is deep within the establishment, as has been maintained for years, but we need to properly think about what this should imply given that we still assume the ontology of things as primary, and that everything else flows out of that. Surely this is being undone by the practices of opensource and copyleft. Surely too the “thinginess” of the property view espoused by huge copyright and patent hoarders who seek an enclosure of the internet commons ought to have the legs taken out from underneath it, given that the functioning paradigm of such companies and corporations is that of this total virtuality.
All of these social technologies, these legal constructs, can be examined that we may see them for what they do, not out of a sense of a fidelity of original purpose (whatever that means), but to examine what we want them to do. Always we can question the function of the thing. What is it for? What can we make it do?
The thing is that business and the market, because it is the living of all of us, tends to be at the forefront of actually using ideas, anathema though this might be to a lot of us. The body without organs was in operation in the Corporation long ago, and yet most hold the corporation to be an unholy abomination. The idea of emergence and spontaneous orders is to be found in Hayek and if we’re feeling generous, Smith (no, the other one). Yet laissez-faire too is a horror we dare not contemplate. I am not an apologist, by any means, but is our position not at least confused, if not necessarily compromised? Is there not a way to make virtuality, the unreality of “value”, money, the myth of the market, to actually work for all of us? I know there are “that’s what they want you to think, man” arguments made that such a position automatically implies that one is co-opted by the market and ipso whoever’s interpretation of the factum compromised. I also know that these arguments are facile, and exchanging one rigid view for another. I’m not proposing a third way, I just want to know where the hell we think we are going, and that if we have to go somewhere, can’t we at least head in the same direction without stomping each other underfoot.