Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled.

To crudely dichotomize for a minute, this route of value posits that culture is either empty verging on futile (Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, etc.) or little more than a stepping stone to something more useful (Richard Florida, Martha Nussbaum, etc.). Helen Small of Oxford University has a book on this forthcoming putting these valorizing justifications of the value of the humanities into their proper context, and so I won’t presume to say much more on the matter.

What I want to do is to take a step back. Instead of nesting this question of culture within the market, justification, the concept of value, or anything else, I want to nest them all within something else. I want to go up a level (“There’s always a bigger fish”). This is disingenuous in a way, as I will be making appeal to the market here, but I hope I can be forgiven for claiming some sort of novelty. I think it is generally accepted that the language of the market, capitalism, accounting, management (etc.) is the dominant paradigm/language/set of metaphors that we deal with today. We are obliged, at all levels, to take the market into account (!), from our labour, to our leisure (going forward).

One work that I think sums this up in an interesting way is Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. It interrogates this all-encompassing aspect of the market. Everything is empire; the market totalizes and is totalized. It cannot be escaped, and this is the reason why Empire is such a magisterial achievement, and such a consummate failure. It couldn’t be anything else. This post is titled “finding” (mealy mouthed in the line of those trusty workhorses “towards” or “on”), and not “I have found”, so I save myself the effort of being exhaustive, but it is worth noting a few points about Empire.

One of these is made by Gopal Balkrishnan in his review of Hardt and Negri’s work, suggesting that it is on a par with the post cold-war narratives of Western victory (Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, et al.) in that it proposes a total narrative, one grand synthesis of explanation. Such syntheses are rare on the left, given the injunction taken out by Lyotard in 1979, but Hardt and Negri have found themselves some loopholes through which they smuggle their message. Balkrishnan is fair in his assessment of their work in saying that Hardt and Negri “oscillate between alternative meanings: do they point to the rising or the falling fortunes of global capitalism? Overall, the book suggests the latter.” They are the cautionary corrective to triumphalist glee of the right. For the sake of comprehensiveness, it is worth pointing to another outline of our present situation, via the political centre, and Philip Bobbitt. His work The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History similarly suggests that the nation state is leaving the international order, to be replaced by the historically novel and unique phenomenon of what he calls the market state.

Across the board there is either assent or surrender or acceptance of the market’s dominance. The best we can come up with in rejectionist terms is the, in Simon Critchley’s phrase, mannerist Stalinism of Slavoj Zizek (who still in spite/because of this gives us a succinct critique of Hardt and Negri’s project by saying that “the lack of concrete insight is concealed in the Deleuzian jargon of multitude, deterritorialization, and so forth.”) In this Margaret Thatcher’s project is complete – There Is No Alternative. This discourse of market liberalism has its own acronym, TINA, and this rhetoric of no alternative (Eleonora Belfiore’s phrase) encompasses everything.

But simply giving up seems premature.

So what would be an alternative? Well, there is a reason why those who search for something different often turn to the notion of anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, and other permutations (I am thinking of Chomsky, as well as Deleuze and Guattari). We do not have a historical example of an anarchist society in a manner which would be regarded as compelling to those who require case studies and policy sketches. But we do have thought experiments from within the arts in the form of the vast series of books written by Iain M. Banks.

It is no mistake that the overarching title for this cycle of 10 (give or take) books is The Culture Series. Culture is the essence of this post-scarcity sequence of overlapping and interlocking narratives. It is also no mistake that it is not a linear epic in the model of other, politically reactionary, shall-remain-nameless speculative fiction enterprises.

Yannick Rumpala notes the following regarding this world, and it is the root of this post:

“First of all, a few details about the Culture need to be made clear. The Culture, as Iain M. Banks portrays it, is a civilization, not an empire. Its members do not have any ambition to exercise authority or sovereignty over the parts of the galaxy where it is present.”

It is not an empire. The nexus of capital and international politics that comprises the modern market system (which Lenin stated could not be separated) is not inevitable. It is conceivable that another model is possible. When the economics and politics of scarcity are overcome, indeed, empire becomes unnecessary. Of course, we are not post-scarcity. The international market system (“the market is efficient!”) is egregiously unequal. You can outline your own litany of hypocrisy, corruption, and unnecessary suffering for yourself. The point to take from this inequality is that we have enough (though we are not post-scarcity), more than enough, but this sufficiency is not shared properly. This is why we have empire. Inequality is the root of empire, and inequality is the raison d’etre of the market in all available senses.

The contrast I am setting up, then is between empire and civilization. It is a contrast between settling for the inequality of the market, and aiming for the surplus beyond this. Living in this surplus is what gives civilization. A recent paper by William Yat Wai Lo, “University rankings as a zoning technology: a Taiwanese perspective on an imaginary Greater China higher education region” makes this point with regard to the specific position of Taiwan on the global university rankings. Taiwan, he suggests, must work to “improve its visibility and status in global higher education in anticipation of a change from an imperial geo-politics of knowledge production to a multi-polar world order in global higher education.” Just as this applies specifically to university rankings, so too does it apply to the wider higher education landscape.

It is not necessary for our international order to be an empire, but the notion of civilization is seemingly irredeemably debased, and I seem to be making appeal to Samuel Huntington by referring to this c-word. The problem is that by using the word civilization in the manner that Yannick Rumpala does, we are using it in an entirely new sense. Civilization on a planetary scale, rather than in the sense of conflict that Huntington foments. Huntington is not suggesting a sophisticated exchange of perspectives and cultures, of a system of discourses between and among civilizations. There is one civilization, namely that which crows the triumphalism of the market. It is, in Kishore Mahbubani’s phrase, “the West, and the rest”.

So, I ask, are we thinking on the wrong scale? Of course we are. In adopting the language of the market to discuss everything we do, we are talking in the sense of Q1, Q2, Q3… even the A/W and S/S of the fashion world would be an improvement. We deal in the increments of time which are acceptable to the shareholders that don’t even exist for culture. Our attempt to step beyond this restricted concept of accountability (!) brings us to “stakeholders”, which isn’t an improvement, coming from the corporate world as it does. We have an alternatives to the market, and civilization is but one of them (what of the noosphere? Or intergenerational justice?), but the challenge is to start articulating it.

I am aware that this is worryingly close to a rejectionist stance, and rereading this later I will not be satisfied. It seems woolly, but I take as a positive that this is not as a result of a conclusion, as I haven’t reached a conclusion (no change there). A point is that we can discuss culture in the sense that answering to the taxpayer becomes a non-issue. Those working in culture, arts, humanities are themselves taxpayers. Asking them to justify what they do is like asking them how they are going to justify their work to those who breathe and have heartbeats. They are their own constituents. So show the rhetoric of accountability to be vapid and offensive, and then demonstrate that there are alternatives. Starting this way we can begin to discuss what this concept of civilization can do for us, what we want it to imply, and how we can do better. Those involved and interested in culture will be deeply involved in this, as this is what they do. But an important step is not to accept the premise that there is no alternative. We have imagined them. They are our future.


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