Recently I’ve come across various organisations that want to challenge or subvert capitalism but use the techniques and tools of capitalism to do it.
The People’s Supermarket, a community owned co-operative based on volunteers contributing time not money, has invested in high quality branding and design. Emily James’s new environmental action film, ‘Just do it: get off your arse and save the world’, has aimed and succeeded in getting a higher search engine ranking than Nike for ‘just do it’ through search engine optimisation (SEO). Worker co-operatives are running businesses on non-hierarchical lines with the workers as owners and decision-makers, but they are competing in the capitalist economy with capitalist businesses …
The question always comes to me, should organisations challenging capitalism use its techniques and tools? There are lots of different ways of answering this question, so it’s interesting to see what thinkers like Foucault or Zizek might make of it.
For Foucault society is made up of power relations. The idea of a society without power relations, he says, is an abstraction. But he also points out that “where there is power, there is resistance.” Foucault is not making some optimistic point about how, when people try to control others, then they tend to resist. He is saying that whenever people try to control others, there are ofte unintended effects.
In Discipline and Punish, for example, he points out that there are various techniques used during early capitalist times to produce docile, obedient prisoners, but these techniques also produce ‘delinquents’ who have been treated violently, forced to band together in prison, and who leave prison to find that they are labelled as criminals, cannot find work and can only rely on former prisoners.
I think the same point can be applied to the techniques of advanced capitalism like SEO and branding. These techniques have been developed to enable businesses to maximise appeal and visibility amongst potential customers. But they have unintended consequences that challenge businesses’ market dominance they. Anti-capitalists can use SEO to undermine the success of Nike and generate awareness of anti-consumerist activism. They can use branding and design to draw people into a shop that doesn’t make profits for shareholders. Or they can use business processes developed in order to run a successful worker owned and run enterprise.
So, thinking with Foucault, there’s a beautiful irony at work here.
I can’t help thinking, though, that if non-capitalist enterprises use branding, co-operatives operate in the market or activists use SEO, doesn’t capitalism carry on through them? Using branding appeals to consumerism, and so consumption and consumerism continue through this supposed alternative. Worker co-operatives easily lose their sense of radicalness once they are threatened with falling profits and can become more and more capitalist in order to keep going or expand. SEO is a tool based on invasive techniques and treats people as individual, isolated consumers.
So there’s a real danger that using these techniques is actually perpetuating capitalism.
Zizek, insightful as ever, makes this point in First as Tragedy, then as Farce. He talks about “the version of capitalism which is emerging as hegemonic out of the present crises is that of a ‘social responsible’ eco-capitalism” – the kinds of organisations that support Fairtrade, eco-friendly products, worker participation etc, but despite these niceties continue the exploitation inherent in capitalism – some profiting from the labour of others and thus leaving inequalities and exploitation intact.
And this is potentially what we see here. By using branding, by seeking the top search engine ranking, by trying to create a worker owned island competing in the market, there is a constant danger of subverting one capitalist tool (branding, SEO, management hierarchy), but reinforcing others.
In fact, Zizek goes further, pointing out that even if anti-capitalists do not perpetuate capitalism, their demands may still be subsumed into capitalism. Capitalism is endlessly flexible. This participative and inclusive eco-capitalism has in fact developed as a way of incorporating the demands that emerged following May 68. “In such a way, capitalism is transformed and legitimized as an egalitarian project.”
Zizek is very pessimistic about the idea of using capitalist tools – he looks to a “shattering ethico-politcal act”, completely outside the democratic capitalist system, that will destroy it entirely.
I’m cautious but not so pessimistic. I think anti-capitalists should use capitalist tools and techniques, but when they do they should do two things.
First, anti-capitalists should always ensure that capitalist tools are seen as means to an anti-capitalist end, not ends in themselves. Once a co-operative views profitability as its main purpose then it loses its significance – profitability is a means for a co-operative to practice, develop and promote a different way of organising the economy. Once branding is seen as something important in itself or used for profit making purposes then it loses its raison d’être – branding for anti-capitalists is to raise awareness and understanding, nothing more.
Only by being constantly vigilant about means and ends is it possible to ensure that anti-capitalists do not get incorporated into some kinds of new version of capitalism.
Second, it is important that using capitalist tools and techniques for anti-capitalist purposes is not done in isolation. If ever there is a way for an organisation to be subsumed into a new version of capitalism it is by doing something alone, without connection to other organisations, movements and activists.
What is need is to form what Laclau and Mouffe call a ‘chain of equivalence’ that unites different movements together under a common banner. Co-operatives, environmental activists, the open source movement, etc all need to unite and link together so that the organisations do not get isolated.
So my feeling is yes, use capitalist techniques and tools, but be constantly aware that they are means not ends and try to link up with all the others to form a barrage that challenges the hegemony of capitalism.