Maurizio Lazzarato, Brian Massumi, Peter Pál Pelbart, and Akseli Virtanen

Power at the End of the Economy

A Discussion

Akseli Virtanen: The books coming now out in the n-1 series – Brian’s Power at the End of the Economy. Journey to the Neoliberal Limit, Maurizio’s Signs, Machines, Subjectivities, my Arbitrary Power. A Critique of Biopolitical Economy and Peter’s Cartography of Exhaustion. Nihilism Inside Out – are all working on economy, or more precisely, on its end as we used to know it and on understanding its new nature, organization, and relation to our subjectivity. They are saying that the question of the future should begin here, from understanding the relationship between the exhaustion of the possible at our disposal and how the production of value functions today. We need to add a whole new dimension to economic and political thinking: the production of wealth depends on affective rabbit holes and indeterminate existential activity, both of which are irreducible to political, economic, or linguistic representation and rationality, and unmanageable at these levels. The economy is not anymore a matter of “economics.” It rather captures and exploits something more profound: the process of singularization and production of new modes of subjectivation based on desire, as Maurizio says.

In the Stuttgart seminar we were trying to think through this new situation: how does power work at the end of the economy? What are its means of capturing the future already today? How is machinic surplus value produced? How is singular becoming possible when the mechanisms of accumulation do not restrict themselves to our actual actions in particular time and space, but sink their teeth directly into the molecular, aleatory, the uncertain and indeterminate, still in the process of becoming?
The concepts developed in these books – like ontopower, arbitrary power, power signs, machinic enslavement, exhaustion of possible, impossible community – may sound excessive and even extravagant, but they are all mapping the territory upon which we are already walking. They very precisely consider the nature and organization of “n”, the multitude, and how power must turn in different ways toward “arbitrariness” and “pure power” (Akseli), or “priming” (Brian), “machinic” (Maurizio), “nihilism” (Peter) after all the “ones” are gone. In this wonderland, nothing appears the same anymore.

Peter Pál Pelbart: And many of the critical theories get lost in this wonderland too – which is a reason why we need to rethink our approaches. Akseli, in your book this is articulated as an attempt to rethink and understand “economy” based on the same premise that has led political philosophy to speak of biopolitics. So the starting point is simple: if the dissolution of the boundaries between economy and other areas of life is essential for thinking about politics today, as thinkers like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben claim, it must be so also for thinking about economy today.

Akseli Virtanen: To say that economy has become biopolitical means that elements belonging to bios – which is the Greek concept for good life, political life, like understanding, experience, ability to create new meanings, relational and collective abilities, which also have a very existential character and make life open to the future – have entered into the center of producing economic value. This drives the modern economy into crises as its foundations – its restricted conception of value and how it is produced, its restricted conception of rationality, what is work and not work, what is productive and what is not and the entire mode of accumulation based on this – collapse. The economy has to find another way of functioning. What we are witnessing is the transformation of the nature of economy, of what it is. The financialization of economy can only be understood in relation to this. It is not the cause of our misery, but a logical way for capitalism to react to changed circumstances, without losing its grip on the accumulation of value. A development of a new form of grip, which is about controlling the future, a method to reduce what will be to what is now, to tie future potentiality to the present power relation.

Peter Pál Pelbart: Your book studies this collapse and its strange consequences. Even if the foundations of economy collapse, it does not seem to mean that it didn’t work, right?

Akseli Virtanen: Yes, in trying to explain this paradox, the study reveals how in such an arbitrary condition (functioning without basis) the economy must return to its roots as political economy in the original sense of the syntagma, that is, in the sense of “general economy” or “general householding.” This was the first meaning of political economy in the eighteenth century – economy as general organization of the state, the big family, and of everything included there, existence and production, experience and understanding, habits of life, subjectivity. It means economy no longer in its modern restricted sense as a semi-autonomous sphere of reality with its own independent economic laws of supply and demand and market rationality – this is the economy you still hear the clergy, the politicians, and economic experts talking about – but as bare management, oikonomia, of life and future in general without any other end: to return to its roots as oikonomia, the economy needs to surpass its own modern limits, it must give itself up and find a way to operate in a “state of lawlessness” without the law of value or after the collapse of the law – in a state of arbitrariness and anomy. It means the end of economy as we once knew it, and the birth of arbitrary power.

Let’s think about your book, Peter, which relates exactly to this connection between arbitrariness and exhaustion. Are you claiming to write a cartography of exhaustion?

Peter Pál Pelbart: A cartography is not a bare description of reality, but it has an effect, of existentialization, as far as it generates a subjective territory or follows the collapse of strangled territories. In the book I take Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis or symptomology of nihilism as my starting point, and try to detect which centers of gravity are being dissolved. Not only “God is dead” but maybe what in modernity used to connect and give meaning to our subjectivity – work, employment, wages, defending the welfare state. They do not connect to our subjectivity anymore. What does life become after our previous values collapse? What is life when it appears to be built on a nihilistic base? When values respected as supreme lose their credibility – which is quite obviously the case for us, too – life becomes a vertigo of falling, of losing coordinates; it opens to a new topography without a center, without a unique source of meaning, without the One. What we should take from Nietzsche is his insight that trust in existing values is a sickening of the will; that nihilism is necessary for the transvaluation of values – of values that are always about a type of life imposing itself on others – and that creation of values should start from will’s own strength. That is why he says creators are destroyers. The feeling of destruction, of the end of the world, involves a strange creativity; a creation of a new world. My book works with this constellation, which is a constellation between nihilism, crisis, exhaustion, and creation.

Akseli Virtanen: It is about thinking about reopening the field of what is possible in a new way?

Peter Pál Pelbart: Yes. I try to understand individual and collective states of suspension, bankruptcy, and collapse; of becoming almost a remnant in terms of vital strategy or even of political resistance. These vacuoles of silence and solitude or being off-line that Deleuze talked about … of becoming “molle,” as you and the mollecular organization in Helsinki have said … what new forms of sociality use such “Bartleby effect”? And how?

What is a populated solitude, a solitude inhabited by many tribes, lines, intensities? Which commonality could coexist with Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance”? What is a community of those who do not have a community? What possibilities are there in a nonfusional community to create distance? Or to build existential and subjective territories from and despite the reterritorialization of every minute by the material and immaterial economy and its arbitrary mechanisms of command? What is the self, understood as a fold of the outside? How do we detect emerging modes of subjectification, foyers of collective enunciation and of group intelligence that escape the automatisms and captures of capital, which have not yet acquired sufficient visibility in our cooperative attempts? How do we follow the lines of exodus and active retreats of the allegedly “excluded”? What resources are available, asked Félix Guattari, to an individual or a collective to create its own mode of working in a domestic space, its own rhythm of time to mobilize collective memory, to produce goods and knowledge and their circulation, to transit in spheres considered invisible, to reinvent the corporeal, to organize neighborhood and create solidarity, to care for children and for the old, to deal with pleasure and pain? These are the types of questions I try to work with in the book.

I think Brian arrives at the same questions from a slightly different angle, by deconstructing the individual as an economic actor.

Brian Massumi: It is clear that the individual subject of interest forming the fundamental unit of capitalist society is internally differentiated, containing its own population of “minority practices” of contrasting affective tone and tenor, in a zone of indistinction between rational calculation and affectivity. In other words, there is an infra-individual complexity quasi-chaotically agitating within the smallest unit. The individual remains the smallest unit despite this infra-level complexity, because what resonates on that level are not separable elements in interaction. This means that we need to add a whole new dimension to economic thinking. Beneath the microeconomic level of the individual there is the infra-economic level. The individual is not one. It may collect itself as one. It may figure as one, but in itself, it is many. Many tendencies – potential expressions and orientations held together in tension. Buffeted by these tendencies’ turbulent coalescence, divided among them in its relation to itself. Divided among them, awaiting their complex playing out in a shift in general orientation, the “individual” is the dividual, as Deleuze said. The dividual is the individual as affective
infra-climate, in relation to itself, commotionally poised for what may come, storm or shine, doldrums or halcyon days. And nothing divides and multiplies the individual so much as its own relation to the future. The uncertainty is not just external, relating to accidents and the unpredictable actions of others. It agitates within, just as Peter says. The affective infra-climate of the dividual poised for what may come is the rabbit hole of the economy. It reaches a limit that lies outside its logic. The dividual is the noneconomic wonderland of intense and stormy life on the brink of action that lies at the heart of the economy; its absolute immanent limit.

Akseli Virtanen: I think this is really a wonderful articulation. You are saying to the economists the same thing that the political economists said to the mercantilist and cameralist government in the eighteenth century: laisser-faire, you cannot approach and govern with your methods something whose nature and rationality is totally different. You show the irreducible incompatability between the economy’s rationality and dividuality’s affective uncertainty. You take the operation they started to the end! The economy is over its head: do not laisser-faire the government! Or, we can also say this in another way: the particular form of economy, the economy as we used to know it, has reached its limit. A new capitalist alchemy is needed to transmute this uncertainty into profit. We need to add a whole new dimension to economic thinking if we want to understand this.

Brian Massumi: Yes, when microeconomic considerations of the actual process of individual choice join macroeconomic considerations of complexity and uncertainty, they lead to the inescapable conclusion that any politics of individualism based on an economy of self-interested personal choice – taking it for granted that units of human capital are rational animals – has missed the boat.

Akseli Virtanen: I think here is a key moment. Because this seems to be the conclusion of the capital as well. It needs a new alchemy, new methods in an uncertain world whose future must be organized and value production captured. That is why neoliberalism coincides with massive withdrawal from normative-disciplinary regime of power, and moves toward conditioning uncontrolled open environments. You call this form of conditioning “priming,” don’t you?

Brian Massumi: Priming is a form of power that modulates events before they fully emerge. It conditions the situation and addresses the subject of interest from an angle of its relational sensitivity and constitutive openness to its outside. It induces emerging effects through implanting presuppositions, activating dividual tendencies. It inflects outcomes, and backgrounds activity. It is a kind of art of situational emphasis – just like you describe oikonomia in your book – that orients entry to a situation, leaves deviance to its own devices, functions by incitation and inclination, induces participation, and brings something to life. It is an inductive mode of power that allows things to come out. What this means is that priming works with the dividual. Its mode of operation presupposes a tendential undertow in the life of the individual that is best approached affirmatively, and whose complexity is such that only a certain ratio of success can be guaranteed.

Peter Pál Pelbart: You also say that we are as much self-priming as conditioned by machinations of others – we could also think that these are connected. In his book, Akseli talks about this form of power as production of ethics, as production of the “second nature” that guides our thinking, behavior, and self-realization.

Akseli Virtanen: According to its Aristotelian formulation, ethos is the “second nature” that guides self-realization – because ethos is what makes a person become what he or she is to others. It is not an external but an internal force, because one needs to behave in the right way, make the right decisions, even when nobody is watching or when the environment is open. For one to want to behave in the right way, obedience is not enough. The government cannot be external but must become corporeal; it must become flesh. That is the only way to organize on the level of uncertain potentiality and possibilities of life. The production of ethics means presetting the environment or conditions of action, and thinking and relating to the presence of others. It is like the self evidence, called topoi koinoi in Classical rhetoric. Self-evidencies do not transmit any information; they do not contain any particular meaning, they cannot be contested, but only accepted, repeated, and followed as if unnoticed. These “common places” are the conditions of all meaningful interaction. They are a kind of means of organizing thinking and memory, and that is exactly why Aristotle calls them places (topoi). To remember a person or a thing, it is enough to remember the place where we find it or to which it belongs – a place is a means of connecting thoughts. Without this, we would be lost in the labyrinths of our memory. Production of ethics means that these starting points or conditions of action and thinking are transformed into products or objectives, which operate as a means of managing life’s possibilities. They form the grammar of arbitrary power.

Self-evidencies are like a-signifying cues that Brian talks about. Maurizio calls them machinic. They cannot be challenged or discussed. They can only be accepted. They are the starting points that can only be followed, repeated, exercised, and obeyed. No thought or action is operational if it is not complying with these embedded rules of the dispositifs of daily exchange. That is why we can say that these “stopped beliefs” are not organizing our actual actions, but the conditions and possibilities of our action and thought.

For Aristotle, axioms were precisely these common places shared by all, the most general principles and premises that prevent and end the endless regression of movement and signification, of causes and effects. Aristotle says, “There must be a some stopping point.” In mathematics, an axiom is a premise that cannot be validated or justified in itself, but that instead functions as a foundation or justification for all other steps and propositions. The choice of the axioms includes the choice of the technical base terms that are left unproven, because attempting to prove them would lead to an endless regression. Modern debates on the axiomatic revolve around this topic of preconditions and arbitrary premises. We could say that modern mathematics was born when axioms began to be considered arbitrary postulates (stimulated by the discovery of non-Euclidian geometry). In mathematics, axioms are not chosen accidentally – what is sought are the axioms with the right kind of consequences. Axioms are no longer thought to contain intrinsic truth (as they still were for Aristotle). Now their validity, if there is any, results only from the utility of the structures they bear. This is what we need to understand now.

When we accept a “stopped belief,” we accept it, so to speak, as such. We accept it as the repetition of something already said or known that does not bring anything new to the conversation. Or, we actually accept the enunciator of the self-evidence – not because of what he says, but because of what he is. We accept the person as such. This power to transmit a “message” without content that does not refer to anything outside itself defines authority – the “message” without content is a pure order, it cannot be discussed; it can only be obeyed and followed. It says nothing, it tells nothing. It only orders and expects to be received as such.

Self-evidence shares the structure of a pure order, in which the means separate from the end and is therefore in a relationship only with its own instrumentality. A pure order is like a mere appearance, a display of the word detaching from the thing that refutes the very idea of language’s referentiality. It severs the bond between an end, a reason, or a particular meaning and the action. It does not do anything or say anything, but only appears and functions; it is not able to say anything, it is not able to do anything but appear and function. Pure government is pure command, which does not refer to anything outside itself. It is arbitrary. It predisposes action and thought by establishing the conditions of action and thought that can only be followed. This may sound abstract, but its effects are very tangible. Arbitrary power is about the control of the uncontrollability or uncertainty or about the government of a system too complex to be governed through a meaning or some other principle (reason, task, end, value) external to the government of action itself. When this reduction becomes impossible; when voluntary and meaningful control becomes aleatory, uncertain, and impossible; power adopts the arbitrary mode.

One of the interesting conclusions Brian makes is that sympathy – the immediate individual communication of affections between individuals – is at least as original as non-sympathy, which Paolo Virno and Giorgio Agamben for example suggest as characteristic of the human being. Rather, we could understand non-sympathy for others as a capital conditioned desire, primed for self-interest.

Brian Massumi: When the disciplinary-normative hierarchies that organized and channeled ability to sympathize into resemblance and familiarity-based solidarities and belongings are in crisis, as is the case today, affective primings are necessary to suppress or demonize the perception of difference. Given the proliferative nature of capitalism, virulent primings tending toward fascist contagion are required to shore up the sense of identity and reimpose boundaries. This can be seen in the rise of the far right in the United States, beginning with the formal setting in place of the financial mechanisms of the neoliberal economy beginnning in the late 1970s, and now affecting all areas of Europe, in particular since the destruction of what remained of the social democratic model by the crash of 2007–2008 and the subsequent policies of austerity brutally imposing an abrupt transition to a fully-fledged neoliberal model.

The lack of sympathy for others we see, in addition to what a normative point of view would consider “antisocial” actions by individuals, widespread collective attitudes that are actually based on what is purported to be “rational” economic reasoning. These are perhaps best understood less as a lack of sympathy per se, than a sympathy for the market, of the kind corporate persons and enterprise-subjects are primed to feel – and to feel to be in accordance with their own best interests as well as ultimately, in the long run of accumulating multiplier effects, to be in the common good.

Maurizio Lazzarato: Economics and subjectivity go hand in hand, the new political economy is identical with subjective economy. In fact the weakness of capitalism is in the production of subjectivity. No new production of subjectivity exists, or only negative subjectivation, only destruction of previous social relations and their form of subjectivation. For example the values with which work has once been invested – income guarantees, social recognition and mobility, meaning and confidence in the future – are no longer borne out by work. Employment, wages, labor, the defense of the welfare state, and so on, which ought to be connected to subjectivity, do not lead to subjectivation processes anymore because they do not open onto new worlds. There are demands of autonomy, initiative, commitment – but this imposition (to act, to take initiative, to undertake risks), along with declining wages and income, precarity, unemployment and poverty, leads only to depression and withdrawal. The promises of wealth for all of us through hard work, credit, and finance have proved empty. We know now that only the interests of owners of securities and creditors are protected.

This is also what a lot of critical theories neglect or fail to understand: the machinic nature of the functioning of economy. Money and finance are perfectly capable of deterritorializing social matter. Dividual is of a piece with the machinic assemblage, but it is also torn into pieces by it. The component parts of subjectivity – intelligence, affects, sensations, cognition, memory, physical force – are components whose synthesis lies in the assemblage or process, and not in the person. What I call machinic enslavement does not work with subjects and objects; but with their deterritorialization, with the molecular components, non-individuated, intensive, subhuman potentialities of subjectivity, and intensive molecular component parts and potentialities of matter and machines. Subjective economy means subjectivity existing for the machine, subjective components as functions of enslavement which activates pre-personal pre-cognitive, and pre-verbal forces (perception, sense, affect, desire) as well as supra-personal forces (machinic, social, linguistic, economic) which go beyond the subject. It involves neither representation nor consciousness, it is machinic.

The government of dividuals not only plays a part in the individual’s representations and conscious behavior, but in the desires, beliefs, and sub-representative reality of subjectivity. That is why I can say that machinic enslavement does not operate through repression or ideology. It employs modeling and modulating techniques that bear on the “very spirit of life and human activity.” It takes over human beings “from the inside,” on the pre-personal (pre-cognitive and preverbal) level, and “from the outside,” on the supra-personal level, by assigning them certain modes of perception and sensibility and manufacturing an unconscious. Machinic enslavement formats the basic functioning of perceptive, sensory, affective, cognitive, and linguistic behavior.

Akseli Virtanen: The Parasite algorithm Robin Hood uses “databanks” of market actors. It gathers and selects millions of data on market actor behavior, purchases, habits, competences, inclinations, tastes, preferences. They have no idea how much we know about them. But this information concerns precisely “dividuals” whose profiles are mere relays of inputs and outputs in our production-consumption machine. As Maurizio says, “dividuals” have a statistical existence controlled by the Parasite, whose operations differ from the individualization carried out by pastoral power, which is exercised on “real” individuals.

Brian Massumi: I like this! Also we must start operating beyond persuasion, beyond communication, take the game outside of identities and “self” and toward dividuals, incremental desire and imitation, information deficit, and distrust. The game of becoming a member of Robin Hood is also played here and not at the rational-cognitive level. We need to take advantage of the ongoing deterritorialization and move toward politics of dividualism and not try to return to “subject of interest” or rely on programmatic politics of “cognitive persuasion” or fall back on mythical-conscious narratives of the “worker”, “employment” and so forth. It means engaging neoliberalism where it draws its power: in its paradoxes, in its arbitrariness, in its dividualism, and not on rational decision-making and market-based organization. They are not the problem here.

Maurizio Lazzarato: Today a man without machines, without apparatuses, without diagrams, without equations, without a-signifying semiotics, is “aphasic,” incapable of “speaking” in these worlds, of grasping and intervening in processes of deterritorialization. In a machine-centric world, in order to speak, see, smell, and act, we are of a piece with machines and a-signifying semiotics. It is in exactly in this sense that a-signifying semiotics constitute focal points of enunciation and vectors of subjectivation.

So it is very important to understand that subjective mutation is not primarily discursive, because it is situated at the focal point of existential nondiscursivity at the core of subjectivity. It is starting from this existential dimension that there is an emergence, a processuality, a taking on of consistency, of subjectivity. Only from this a-signifying, unnamable, and incommunicable core can there be signification, language, and narrative. The point has important political implications since this same pre-individual subjectivity is brought to bear by machinic enslavements which exploit affects, rhythms, movements, durations, intensities, and a-signifying semiotics. 

Peter Pál Pelbart: It exhausts the possible. Just as we discussed in the seminar, the key question for us is how to break “off-line”: how to begin a process of subjectivation independent and autonomous from the capitalist hold on subjectivity on the dividual level, its modalities of production and forms of life.

Maurizio Lazzarato: We need to ask what the conditions are for a political and existential break at a time when production of subjectivity constitutes the most fundamental of capitalist concerns. What models and modalities of organization must be built for a subjectivation process that joins micro- and macropolitics? How to imagine politically engaged life whose precondition is breaking the habit and values of established conventions? How to start suspension of dominant significations, cancelling out the hold of machinic enslavements?

Akseli Virtanen: I always wonder where the desire to do these things comes from.

Maurizio Lazzarato: You know, desire is not a deficit. It is an arising process that secretes other systems of reference from a world that was once closed. It is not a natural force, but a result of a highly developed and engineered setup rich in interactions. This is our task. To desire means to construct an assemblage; it means to act in and for a multiplicity. One desires worlds and the possibilities one senses in them.

What is n-1?

“n-1” is a concept from the toolbox of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. It refers to the necessity of creating new organizational forms and ideas – to which any “one” (leader, value, meaning, aim, task, community) belongs only as a subtracted element. It is the question of cooperations after the experience of precarity, erosion of values and semiotic inflation characterizing biopolitical economy. What is organizing at “n-1”? What is “n”? What is “1”? What is “minus one”? What happens to a multitude when all coordinating “ones” are lost? How does a multitude organize without any “one”? How does it prevent new “ones” from emerging and capturing it? What is cooperation without any aim? What kind of cooperation is able to deal with the still uncertain and indeterminate potentiality? How does power function in a condition of arbitrariness? What is the difference between the organization of action, and that of its potentiality?

These are also the questions the “n-1” book series, edited by Peter Pál Pelbart and Akseli Virtanen, works with. The series’ aim is to give expressive support to organizational experiments studying and developing coming cooperations, the art of creating new social futures. The series motto is “expressive support for a-signifying ruptures,” the editors write: “We don’t organize to make the series, we make the series to organize. To organize at n-1. Just as the publications of the series “fold” as results of cooperation between partial subjectivities, they also unfold into events – theatrical montages, installations, exhibitions, master classes, workshops, dinners between friends … that go beyond the book form and reverberate the theoretical and sensitive questions found in them. We try to produce more-than-books, to speak to your senses, which you want to touch and screw and throw and that make you go beyond meaningful communication. They are heterogeneities that trigger n-1, where any element aspiring to a position of centrality gets subtracted.”

n-1 Edições, edited by Peter Pál Pelbart and Akseli Virtanen

Félix Guattari: Kafkamachine (2011)
Heinrich von Kleist: On Marionette Theater (2011)
Kuniichi Uno: Genesis of an Unknown Body (2012)
David Lapoujade: Powers of Time (2012)
Jean Claude Polack: Experiences of Madness (2013)
Peter Pál Pelbart: Cartography of Exhaustion (2013)
Brian Massumi: Economies of Ontopower (2014)
Maurizio Lazzarato: Signs, Machines, Subjectivities (2014)
Akseli Virtanen: Arbitrary Power. Critique of Biopolitical Economy (2014)
Michel Foucault: Utopian Body and Herotopias (2014)
Suely Rolnik: Geopolitics of Pimping: Between Art, Politics and Clinic (2014)
Beatriz Preciado: Countersexual Manifesto (2014)
Beatriz Preciado: Testo Junkie. Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (2015)
David Lapoujade: William James: Pragmatism and Empiricism (2015)
Franco Berardi: And – Phenomenology of the End (2015)
Fernand Deligny: Arachne (2015)
Barbara Glowczewski: Totemic Becomings (2015)
John Rajchman: Indisciplinary Art (2015)
Bracha Ettinger: Co-Poiesis (2015)
Jean Oury: Creation and Schizophrenia (2015)
Vladimir Safatle: When the Streets Burns: On the Constitution of Political Subjects (2015)
Robin Hood: Profanation of Finance (2015)
Sakari Hänninen: Five Lectures on Economic Theology (2015)
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: From the Primitive Matriarchy to the Society against the
State and Beyond. Cartography of the Anthropophagus Descent (2016)
Félix Guattari: What is Ecosophy? (2016) 
Erika Alvarez Inforsato: Unwork (Desoeuvrement): Clinical and Political Constellations of the Common (2016)
João Perci Schiavon: The Drive Pragmatism (2016)
Alejandra Riera: Maquettes-without-quality (2016)
Karolina Kucia: The Molecular Adventures of Precariat and the Soft Stomach of Arbitrary power (2016)

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