- Political Fabulation and the Creativity of Perception: Neoliberalism and Affective Politics – Massumi’s The Power at the End of the Economy
Neoliberalism, so the story goes, is about the unbridled spread of capitalist rationality to all spheres of life. Homo economicus, the entrepreneurial neoliberal subject, maximizes his self-interest and becomes an entrepreneur of the self amid the heightened precarity of neoliberal economic life. In The Power at the End of the Economy, Brian Massumi does not contest this familiar narrative about neoliberalism, as much as he probes more deeply into the question of what neoliberal rationality actually might be based upon and how it functions in relation to the economic. What is the relationship between neoliberal rationality and neoliberal affect? What is the motivating force of rational self-interest, and could it be that at those undecidable moments when rationality gives way to action, that it is ultimately affect that takes priority? What might an anti-capitalist politics look like in light of this affective exposure of neoliberal economic rationality? These are all questions that Massumi explores in depth.
The key intervention of the book is the proposition that affect is fundamental to the workings of contemporary economic life:
In today’s version of free-market ideology, neoliberalism, the affective commotion has become so insistent that something else surfaces as well: the creeping suspicion that it is upon the groundless ground of these now not-so-concealed factors that the edifice of the economy is actually built.1
Thus Massumi suggests that we must reconsider our investments in rationality, certainly at least the liberal investment in rationality as the “guarantor of self-optimizing order,” as well as our certainty over its identity and relation to affect.2 For “Affectivity and will are in a zone of indistinction,” writes Massumi.3
In the context of neoliberal precarity, where the economy is perpetually suspended in the possibility of crisis, the subject of self-interest faces a dilemma: the premise of rational calculation is that if one acts in alignment with a rational strategy, predictable results can be achieved. Yet the neoliberal economy and its drive toward the creation of surplus value is fueled by quite the opposite of this rational premise. Contemporary economics is
driven by the potential for, and yearning after, an excess of effect over any given quantity of causative input: surplus value. The more complex the system is, the more uncertain the future becomes. … Capitalism, always a far-from-equilibrium system, is becoming ever more so. The same multiplier mechanism that promises future satisfaction makes it exponentially less certain.4
So goes the dilemma of rationality for the neoliberal entrepreneurial subject.
Following Niklas Luhmann, Massumi observes that this dilemma involves a disorienting interplay between rationality and the radical unpredictability of economic decision-making in the crisis-ridden economy of contemporary capitalism. Affective experiences of trust and distrust accordingly become almost indistinguishable: one feels at all times a “readiness” for either affect.5 Neoliberalism actually relies upon the spastic oscillation between trust and distrust, upon their imbrication and even upon their indistinction.
Ultimately, this brings Massumi to the point that trust in the crisis-ridden economic system is rationally unjustified. The trustworthiness of the economic system is only retroactively validated. As Massumi writes, speaking of economic transactions,
The transactions that worked out well and led to success proved themselves trustworthy. They became trustworthy, as a function of how they played out. The state of system trust is effectively self-justifying. … The self-organizing emergence of the trust-effect is retroactively validating. It is affectively validating in the currency of satisfactions gained.6
The system ultimately works best when consciousness of trust and distrust are altogether lost, so that the affective underpinning of our supposedly rational and autonomous economic choices is unknown to itself.7
Thus Massumi arrives at what is perhaps the most interesting and central argument of the book, regarding the relationship between rational choice, sense perception, and what he calls “priming.” He argues that though we tend to think...