Monday, 26 October 2015

The Colonisation of the Private Realm and Love's Intersubjective Revolution: Forwards to Technology and Education?

In a striking and somewhat depressing article on the opendemocracy website, Byung-Chul Han argued "Why revolution is no longer possible" (see - thanks to Oleg for this reference!). Han's basic concern is the capitalist colonisation of the private realm as well as the public realm. Capitalism has transferred its inherent contradictions (which Marx always believed it would collapse from) from an overt class-war with opposing forces pitted in a battle for emancipation, into an inner existential struggle. Each individual has been seduced into the capitalist colonisation of their private life with ego-massaging social media: pro-sumers (like me!) are not merely victims of the multinational players like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc - they have become the very instruments of a capitalism which many of them (like me) will use social media platforms to criticise. Capitalism wins by subsuming the critique against it.

The price is high: this is a Faustian bargain that everyone has been drawn into (and Mephistopheles is raking it in!) Han holds up South Korea as the epitome as the "readjusted" neo-capitalist society, which after its financial crisis, made its population docile: a "vast consensus" alongside depression and burnout producing the world's highest suicide rate. "People enact violence on themselves instead of seeking to change society. Aggression directed outward, which would entail revolution, has yielded to aggression directed inward, against oneself." Failure in today's neoliberal economy is nobody else's fault but our own. There is nobody else to be angry at but ourselves.

I think Han gets it spot-on in a way that Paul Mason, for all his impressive arguments about the "sharing economy" is naively optimistic. The naivety Mason advocates entails walking further into the capitalist trap: Airbnb and Uber spell trouble, not freedom. Mason does however make the point that there are aspects of intimate life which neoliberalism cannot (yet?) touch. At the bottom of it is love. Our understanding of this is very limited, and that may present a glimmer of hope.

The dating industry and the sex industry will try to colonise love: Apps like Tinder and Grindr, together with the digitalisation of pornography and prostitution all amount to this. It's interesting to reflect when we ask "why is there so much porn on the net?" that love is the holy grail for the total domination of capitalism - the defeat of the one thing that could still keep it in check. But in reality, these developments are thankfully deficient, only offering gratification. The investment into ever-better AI, Siri-like assistants that you might fall in love with, or sex robots all provide further examples of the fundamental unending motivation of capitalism's quest. Yet the best that the neoliberal system can hope to achieve is to reframe the common conception and expectation of love from a profound spiritual union, to a form of pleasure exchanged for cash or attention. The disruptive effect of the technologies on real relationships is a worrying sign that such a strategy might work. Niklas Luhmann might agree that the technology could potentially reshape the linguistic 'code' of love, just as that code was reformed by feudalism, or then later, 19th century romantic fiction. But great though Luhmann's book on love is (his best book, I think), he may be wrong.

There is obviously something missing in capitalism's game-plan, some deep root to its inherent contradiction which is deeper than the class-oriented social contradiction that Marx identified. The fundamental problem is that capitalism must conceive of subjectivity as specifically individual. The notion of the collective is the notion which threatens it, which can be galvanised into revolution. Whilst Han is right that the social collective has been usurped by capitalism's seduction of the individual, we can still chip-away at capitalism's notion of the individual. To paraphrase Thatcher, "There's no such thing as an individual; there is only intersubjectivity".

Wanting, seduction, ego-massaging, economic exchange, and the rest of capitalist logics are all things which exist not within individual minds, but in-between them. Capitalism's operating principle is to present the myth of the individual mind. Yet if the individual mind can be at all described, we must say that it is constrained, and that the constraints that bear upon it are constraints of other minds in their own interactions with the constraints of a shared lifeworld. Han's capitalist colonisation of the private realm is one constraint in the lifeworld, where other constraints also carry fundamental influence. Most important are the mutual constraints which are understood between (at least) two people who love each other. To deeply understand each others' constraints is to see the capitalist constraint as fundamentally unimportant. The revolution is in the mind, and it is powered by love.

Revolutions in the mind belong to the domain of education. Much education has marketised itself into a vast profitable industry: Blake's "Dark Satanic Mills" which in his mind were the Universities of the 18th century, are now plate glass. Sometimes this has involved distancing itself from authentic intersubjective discovery, instead industrialising the 'measurement of learning' by ticking off lists of learning outcomes and avoiding any difficult or inconvenient questions of inquiring minds. Yet there remain things that we want education to do, and people to do, for which tick-lists of learning outcomes and competencies are deficient. Despite amazing technologies at its disposal, education has ossified its technology in its crudest form of text-based forums and the mega-VLEs which are MOOCs. Such tools do little to promote intersubjective understanding, offering a pale version of the consumer culture of the web and the ego-stroking habits of social media. There may however be educational forces which push for better technology and richer relationships.

Education may need richer experiences and more profound ways in which persons may share their constraints, whether it is a doctor in Bolivia, or a philosopher in Shanghai. Richer connections can be made between the technological capture of intersubjective lived experience and more reflective commentary. The needs of training and the development of 'soft skills' requires opportunities to deeply empathise with each other and recognise each others' constraints. And with better intersubjective technologies, what then when a more connected consciousness turns to look at the neoliberal system around them? Will the fundamental contradiction of the myth of the individual be exposed? Might it usher-in something more hopeful?

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