Habermas, Deleuze and Capitalism
The long debate over Habermas's theory of communication, while pertinent, obscures other important elements of his thought. He has contributed to this neglect, first, by connecting everything in Legitimation Crisis to a controlling logic of rationality and, second, by later dropping the most powerful themes about capitalism in that book. We have made a larger contribution. In returning to the power of that early book, I defer discussion of its partiality for reason, while knowing that this issue will return.
Legitimation Crisis rejects neoliberalism in advance by showing how historically specific investment priorities, tethnological innovations, worker motivations, consumption practices, and state-electoral processes of legitimation enter into the very constitution of capitalism. The idea of a self-equilibrating market is utopian to Habermas, because of the market's own volatility and because of the essential interinvolvements of capitalism with nature, science, education and technology, replete with their own fluctuations between periods of stability and those of turbulence. Similarly, he stretches Marxist theory, claiming that the labor theory of value has lost much of its explanatory power in an age of high technology and the detailed administration of production. He reworks the Marxist idea of crisis, exploring how a rationality crisis of capitalism, in which two system imperatives reach an impasse, can morph through state intervention into motivation and legitimacy crises. As he puts it, "A rationality deficit ..means that the state apparatus cannot, under given boundary conditions, adequately steer the economic system. A legitimation deficit means that it is not possible by administrative means to maintain effective normative structures to the extent required."1 The more the state protects the market from itself, the more it sets itself up to be the fall guy.
These reflections on potential motivation and legitimacy crises are impressive. While the crisis potentialities were in fact deferred and absorbed in capitalist states, it is plausible to say that the former Soviet Union did become entangled in crises of Habermasian proportions. And already in nineteen seventy three (the year of the German edition), Habermas warned that a rationality crisis could be generated by a clash between capitalist growth and the recoil back on the political economy of climate change. Who would not be pleased to be so prescient, first, with respect to an economic system at which your theory was not aimed and, second, in exposing tensions between capital and climate well before other political economists took the issue seriously?
The Habermas exploration of potential capitalist crises also opens a door to productive engagements between him and Gilles Deleuze. The two differ in their philosophies of time, nature, ethics and reason. And, yes, these differences do make differences. But Habermas's explorations of convoluted relays between economic rationality, motivation and legitimation processes resonate with the Deleuze/Guattari conception of an unstable capitalist "axiomatic" ensconced in a larger assemblage of intercoded elements with its own tendencies to instability. A capitalist axiomatic consists of knots between capital, labor, and the commodity form. It creates constraints and possibilities. But since it cannot be without complex conjugations with nature, human bodies, the state, science, and religious institutions, its very shape is both prodded and infected by the larger assemblage in which it is set. And vice versa: the axiomatic and the assemblage are interinvolved in that they enter into both relations of external impingement and mutual infusion. A capitalist assemblage (even more than the Habermasian system) is marked by volatility and an uncertain degree of pluripotentiality. A specific concatenation of events from multiple force-fields could create a tragic impasse in which the system's ability to meet its own demands is defeated, but there is no consummate mode of rational or dialectical analysis through which to determine with certainty the limits of capitalist morphing. To put it another way, we still don't know what capitalism can become, even though its density and fragility give us reason to worry about the worst. Deleuze pursues this issue through a multi-tiered conception of time as becoming, with periodic forks in climate, asteroid showers, religious movements, new instruments of investment, technological developments, invasions, and state priorities, etc. engendering a capitalist assemblage in which we can intervene but never master. To the extent either Marx or Habermas was tempted by the mastery project, Deleuze breaks with each. Habermas, later and in another context, also enlarges his own appreciation of contingency and potential volatilities emanating from both distant and proximate sources. A quotation from PostMetaphysical Thinking reveals how close he and Deleuze move together for a moment before Habermas reaches for his distinctive lifeline:
Transcendental thinking, once concerned itself with a stable stock of forms for which there were no recognizable alternatives. Today, in contrast, the experience of contingency is a whirlpool into which everything is pulled: everything could be otherwise, the categories of understanding, the principles of socialization and morals, the constitution of subjectivity, the foundation of rationality itself. There are reasons for this. Communicative reason, too, treats almost everything as contingent. ..But for everything that claims validity within linguistically structured forms of life, the structures of possible mutual understanding constitute something that cannot be gotten around.2
The discourse theme again, but let's stick a bit longer with parts of that quotation that seem to stretch and ambiguate it. They speak—if propelled into the capitalist problematic—to the stretchability and volatility of elements that both constitute capitalism in some ways and impinge upon it in others. These elements must achieve a fair degree of coordination for it to function, but the sometimes accelerating "whirlpool" of interactions between them carries the possibility of specific concatenations that could create a terrible cul de sac. So Habermas and Deleuze move closer together.
Deleuze, of course, ambiguates the proviso about discourse because of his attention to time as becoming. Our world is composed of multiple force-fields set on specific tiers of chrono-time. Rapid changes on one tier can be communicated to others to which it is related, creating a new disequilibrium where relative stability had prevailed for a time. As when asteroid showers punctuated the course of biological evolution set on another tier of chrono-time, or when a new engagement with Buddhism calls into question the very idea of a personal, moral god, or when the emergence of a new virus creates a human plague resistant to established medical care.
Deleuze develops an image of ethics attuned to a world composed of multiple tiers of becoming that impinge upon each other, each shifting between periods of relative equilibrium and disequilibrium. Given that understanding his conception of ethics has three anchors: care for this world amidst its periods of stability and instability, cultivation of exquisite sensitivity to new twists and turns in time at their critical points of incipience, and the pursuit of creative intervention at such moments informed by the sensibility of care. He and Habermas might concur in seeking to extrapolate from current considerations to a probable future in a relatively stable context, and they might even seek agreement about the value of some counterfactuals over others. But it is the moments of accelerated disequilibrium that Deleuze thinks about the most. Here it is wise to dwell in a new, emerging situation, eventually coming up for air to support new interventions in a situation for which our previous projections did not adequately prepare us. Moreover, established habits of judgment have become embedded into bodily dispositions and institutional presumptions, making it ethically and politically important not only to think creatively in the new situation but to work tactically upon embedded codes as we do so.
Habermas, in his most recent work, has become worried about the sufficiency of discourse theory too, when he says that linguistic theory now needs to be supplemented with an "as if" commitment to the evangelical tradition that inspired Europe in the past.3 Everybody worries today, it seems. This is not the evangelical tradition that has gained power in America, but I do wonder exactly how Habermas separates his "as if" from it. Does the separation within Christendom invoke differences in the degree to which either affirmation of the human condition or ressentiment inhabits the pores of our bodies and institutions? If so, we now find another connection between Deleuze and Habermas. Yet another is the nagging worry each conveys that a new kind of fascism could enter the world.
There was, however, a festering incipience that neither the Habermas of Legitimation Crisis nor the Deleuze/Guattari of A Thousand Plateaus really engaged. Almost everyone on the secular left missed it. It occurred to neither, first, that the right edge of neoliberalism would gain so much ground in many European states, and, second, that an evangelical-capitalist resonance machine would acquire hegemony in the United States, with echoes in Europe too, transfiguring the potential performance crises of state-capitalism into an overbearing, fragile machine that draws a large section of white, working and middle class males into its orbit. Here is how Habermas misread the future then, a future, of course, which is always difficult to read. "Religion, having retreated into the regions of subjective belief, can no longer satisfy neglected communicative needs, even in conjunction with the secular components of bourgeois ideology."4 What a laugh—we can say retrospectively. In fact the surge of a right wing religious movement into new zones helped to fill and displace the legitimation deficit he had diagnosed. At first it was called morning in America. This very development suggests how many elements whirl around in the actual production of economic motivation and belief in the legitimacy of the system.
The two most strategically located fractions of this machine are animated by affinities of spirituality that cut through real differences in creed. The right edge of American evangelism is consumed by the promise of a second coming that will punish eternally those who do not obey Christ as they receive him; so it is unimportant to care about the future of the earth. The right edge of the capitalist elite, flowing over with righteous entitlement, concentrates on its own short term gain at almost any cost, blaming the few adverse effects it acknowledges on the state or the stickiness of labor, and refusing to attend to the probable effects of its demands on the collective future. Both converge to ignore global warming, resist redesigning transportation, oppose regulation of capital markets, demonize selected minorities, resist taxes for the rich, blame poverty on the poor or the welfare state, and invest steep inequality with the rationality and/or divine providence of the market. The reverberations between these forces insinuate a new ethos into established practices of investment, consumption, media news reporting, social discipline, state priorities, and international agencies, spawning a whirlpool more intense than its parts. There are a couple of motivation and legitimation theorems for you.
There is much more to be said about how the spirituality of each faction becomes embedded in the institutional fiber of prayer, church assemblies, investment decisions, consumption priorities, tax policy, state action, electoral campaigns, family dinners, neighborhood life, think tank reports, and media interviews.5 And about how these sites enter into patterns of resonance and amplification, even while they also meet with resistance. The point now, though, is to emphasize, that while neither Habermas nor Deleuze saw how such an emergent network would defer a rationality crisis and refuel the operational legitimacy of unfettered capitalism, the theoretical schemas of both do provide resources through which to examine these very movements. The porous relays between system rationality, motivation and legitimacy in Habermas create that space as they provide cues from which to proceed. So do the heterogeneous elements from which a Deleuzian assemblage is formed, alongside his brilliant presentation of how social resonance machines compel us to reconfigure classical notions of efficient causality and system coordination. Could the next Marx-Weber synthesis be Deleuzian-Habermasian?
At any rate, screwing in efficient light bulbs and winning a couple of elections is not nearly enough to defeat such a multifaceted machine, though I support doing both. Effective action at multiple sites, including the micropolitics of religious life, direct pressure on corporations and the media, and the macropolitics of state action on several fronts, is needed to do so. The multi-headed resonance machine of the right must be countered by a multi-faceted machine of the democratic left.
It seems fair to let Habermas have almost the last word, a word that may speak to his youth and to our time:
German fascism is an example of a strenuous attempt at collectively organized regression of consciousness below the threshold of fundamental scientistic convictions, modern art and universalistic legal and moral conceptions."6
Deleuze would not be too shocked to see a repetition of that phenomenon, replete with significant variations and differences in cultural intensity. Such a worry is discernible in the plateau on "Micropolitics and Segmentarity", where the concept of resonance is introduced to address the interplay between brown shirts, local government, church assemblies, music, vigilante beatings and the like in the early expressions of German fascism.7 But, still, the little Habermas murmuring in some of you may now be poised to pounce, saying "hey, buddy, the very idea of 'a regression of consciousness' presupposes a rational standard against which to measure it." So it does, to you, and to Habermas too, even after he has added the indispensable "as if" supplement. But hold on for one more moment. For it is not merely a regression of cognitive categories that is involved; it is even more the insinuation of an ethos of abstract revenge against the world into the use of such categories by some as well as their supersession by others. Germany, remember, was a capitalist, predominantly Christian state, with a recent history of democratic achievements. To me, this suggests that an intense segment of the German populace became overwhelmed by an ethos of ressentiment, whereby a series of real historical grievances was transfigured into cultural resentment of the most fundamental terms of existence itself, as they themselves conceived and lived those terms. Military, street, economic and governmental pressures ensued to identify scapegoats for the experience of persecution, an experience that expressed a spiral of resonances between historical grievance and demands for extreme entitlement.
Is it more than politically incorrect to make comparisons between the mood of an active minority in the early stages of fascism and intense currents today? My sense is that we should explore these comparisons, even as we also focus on significant differences. I would not be surprised if both Habermas and Deleuze agreed with me on this point. There are at least two disturbing points of contact. Here and now, by comparison to there and then, intense antisemitism is replaced by fear and loathing of a production called "Islamofascism". (Remember that only two generations ago the right wing of the evangelical movement was profoundly antisemitic) And the early German drive for territorial living space is becoming in America an implacable minority drive to free capital from constraint and regulation, whatever the consequences. Add to that volatile mix the politics of demonization by Fox News and the think tank coterie supporting it and the dangers of the American resonance machine are nothing to sneeze at. It is uncertain which way these tendencies will break and how far they will proceed. Much will depend upon how leaders and the populace respond to the next terrorist attack on American soil. Republicans seem to be waging their campaigns on the silent expectation of a new terrorist attack, to be used to forge another generation of rule by the radical right. That is why I do not share the confidence of those who think the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine is already in permanent decline.
It is pertinent to expose and respond to this strategy in advance. In the meantime the new resonance machine absorbs, fills, delays and defers the motivation and legitimacy "deficits" detected by Habermas in the nineteen seventies.
The current movement is precariously balanced by internal checks, external opposition, and humor on Comedy Central. Even if it becomes uglier yet, it will be a distinctive American ugliness irreducible to another country's history. But, as Tocqueville said about "the manufacturing aristocracy" in the 1830's, this is the direction in which to look to identify the most dangerous threat to pluralist democracy, economic decency, and world peace today. It poses dangers both to the United States and to the many parts of the world entangled with our state-economic practices. That is why European and Asian leaders increasingly call for a voice in regulating the American economy, as it repeatedly creates mini-crises from which they in turn suffer. A bigger one could be in the offing.
When it comes to such dangers, Habermasians and Deleuzians need to forge an alliance across their differences in images of time, rationality, ethics, causality and legitimacy. That would create a few hundred academic troops, at least, to help seed a counter-movement... I laugh with you and at myself in saying this. But the minimal point is to exemplify and simulate in academic life the sort of pluralist political assemblage urgently needed in the larger culture. Differences on the democratic left are modest by comparison to our shared worries about these dangers and our commitments to pluralism and egalitarianism. And remember, neoconservatives did not have that many members when they started their march either. Together, we can pursue the formation of a new majority assemblage composed of multiple minorities drawn from several philo-theological creeds, economic positions, sensual practices, ethnicities, and conceptions of ethics, to take on the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine at all of its pivotal sites of action. As you can tell, I accept preaching as one tool in that struggle. Today there are signs of a counter-resonance machine emerging. To succeed it must achieve more than electoral victories (though those are relevant). It must find expression in the pores of family, educational, local, economic, juridical and state-bureaucratic life. As you can tell...
William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches political theory. His recent books include Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed; Pluralism; and Capitalism and Christianity, American Style. He is working on a book to be entitled A World of Becoming, which brings the idea of time as becoming to a series of recent and contemporary thinkers and explores its implications for understanding complexity theory, the human predicament, and global capital.