Belief in politics – Stiegler

On the 30th of April 2004, the French newspaper Le Monde published an essay by Bernard Stiegler entitled ‘De la croyance en politique‘ (Belief in politics), in which Stiegler puts forth a robust and shortened version of his political argument contained within his Disbelief and Discredit series of books.

To summarise in all-too-brief terms, industrialisation has led to a sceptical and conniving form of capitalism that has proletarianised all of us, not only the ‘workers’ (in Marx’s terms), but also the consumers.

In such a system, everything has become calculable – even belief – which becomes a form of (financially) secured trust. ‘Free time’, which was used to dedicate oneself to favourite activities and to rest (‘otium’), has become calculable in the form of the activities of consumption. This proletarianisation undermines the processes of sublimation by which base drives are translated into more positive libidinal energies, instead fixing those drives in forms of consumption and stupidity.

The base drives of consumption for its own sake and the associated credulity lead us to a disbelief that undermines our faith in one another and our belief in the potential of the future. It is the persistent calculated short-termism of immediate profit that undermines our ability to construct plans for the future.

Stiegler argues that the political economy can still be rehabilitated (see my previous translations and comments about the ‘economy of contribution‘). He calls for a re-examination of our belief in politics and a re-invigoration of our desire for knowledge and enlightenment: our desire to ‘elevate’ ourselves. It is through this re-invigoration of political, social and economic life, Stiegler argues, that a new, positive, ‘industrial spirit’ can be formed.

I found translating this text rather hard and I expect it may need further work – the original French can be found here. I would very much welcome any comments and corrections, please use the comments form at the bottom of the page or email me.

As usual, I have included the original French or possible alternative words in square brackets where I am unsure about phrases. I hope that others find this essay as provocative and interesting as I have – I feel it brings out, in a short text, something of Stiegler’s political argument.

Belief in politics

Bernard Stiegler – Le Monde, 30th April 2004

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the liquidation of singularities has instigated both a total loss of confidence amongst the proletariat and a calculating disbelief and has proven powerful, increasingly hegemonic and arrogant.

The scepticism that emerged during the European elections was only one of the many lamentable results of a disbelief in politics ravaging the contemporary world. This collapse of belief in politics has a history, which must now be analysed.

After the industrial revolution transformed into proletarians those that ushered in a new world [les ouvreurs de monde qu’étaient], in their own way, and aside from the clerks  – those who work as labourers, workers and producers in general – the globalisation of capitalism was accomplished in the twentieth century by imposing a proletarianisation of the consumer. The proletariat as a whole is robbed of all of their knowledge, whether it is their savoir-faire or their savoir-vivre, and is now condemned to a life-without-knowledge, that is to say, without flavour [saveurs]. It is thrown into an insipid, at times disgusting, world: a misery that is in turn economic, symbolic and libidinal.

As with the producers, the proletarianisation of consumers affects all social strata, well beyond the “working class”. It leads to a state of consumption resulting from the capture and deviation of the libidinal economy by marketing technologies: the rational exploitation of the libido by industrial means which exhaust the energy that constitutes it.

However, the political community is constituted by its “philia” (a goodness [amicalité] that binds those who compose it) which is entirely libidinal. In other words, consumption tends to liquidate the process of political individuation that has characterised the Occident since the poets, geometrists and legislators, founders of the cities of ancient Greece, the pre-Socratic thinkers, questioned this individuation as the mystery of the One and the Many, thereby politicising the world through thought, and thus trans-forming thought, which is to say through legislation, thereby affirming the power of ideas.

Is a politics still possible today that will not essentially be a struggle, a “polemos”, in the language of Heraclitus (c. 576-about 480 BC.) against the depletive trend of existential, temporal and sapiential resources without which it seems any psychic and collective individuation whatsoever is impossible – including, perhaps, the after life beyond all politics? [au-delà de ou par-delà toute politique?]

The control society, following the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), as the implementation of calculative technologies that allow the institution of a life lived by the imperatives of industrial production, continues and complicates the ‘rationalisation’ described by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). To develop his analysis of “Beruf” as “vocation to make money” (“the capitalist system needs this dedication to the mission of making money”), Weber notes of the worker that, when his salary is increased, he works less: he chooses to take his time.

The worker that labours thus looks forward to free and social time formerly called “otium”. If he earns more money, it reduces his working time for the freedom of his own time, not only to survive and sub-sist, which contradicts the “spirit of capitalism”. Therefore it is necessary to lower his salary to make him work: such is the poverty that inevitably accompanies proletarianization.

At the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, with Fordism as the new industrial model and politics, the producer must be a consumer. This new rationality becomes all the more necessary as the Great Depression of the 1930s expresses the famous “contradictions of capitalism”. This is how marketing becomes king, beginning the process of the proletarianisation of the consumer.

However, the generalized proletarianisation as a loss of existence [existences] as well as livelihoods, imposed on all individualities, mental or collective, is a question of subjection to a constant pressure in order to particularize and de-singularise, to eventually cause a collapse of reason, if by “reason” we mean the reason for living of what Aristotle calls the noetic soul and which he described as a “politics” insofar as they are motivated by and inclined towards “philia”. This reason, which Aristotle (circa 322 to 384-BC.) called “theos”: is the advent of the onto-theological-political par excellence.

The proletarianised rationalisation of the producer, which involves the transformation of “logos” into “ratio”, that is, concretising the “death of God”, replaces the question of belief with that of trust. This is why the dollar expresses the thought of the American politician Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), whose sermons guided the analysis of Weber, by the statement inscribed on the greenback: “In God we trust”. Belief has become, according to Franklin’s sermons, legitimately calculable, which is its transformation into what we thus call trust.

This is the fruit of the development of capitalism that consists as a new state of mind, which requires, as Weber shows, an “absolute confidence in innovations” and the reign of trust. Capitalism is the constant – and literally fascinating – invention of new modes of production and consumption that must be developed against tradition, and which require the development of a fully calculable trust that comes up against belief.

However, in the early twenty-first century, the liquidation of singularities and the destructive trend of the libidinal economy, squeezes everyone, if only by denial, inducing both the total loss of confidence in the proletarians and a calculating [conniving] and powerful disbelief amongst the powerful, who are increasingly hegemonic and arrogant.

Generalized discredit therefore responds to this total proletarianisation and threatens the capitalist system at its very heart: the rational development of trust leads to the rational destruction of all belief – that is to say, of any future. This is the nihilism against which Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), contrary to so many clichés, calls for another faith: “And you must sail the seas, you emigrants, you too are compelled to this by – a faith” he writes in The Gay Science.

Today, suffering is experienced dreadfully by everyone everywhere as disbelief and discredit, which could not happen (it took a century, as Nietzsche announced) until the moment when the libido, desire in the Freudian sense, not just interest in the Weberian sense, became an object of calculation with the view to its systematic exploitation.

Also necessary is the issue that may appear today in the return of the theological-political, the new issue of belief in politics is less a return to religion than a return of what has been repressed through the death of God: it is the issue of consistence [la consistance] as what does not exist and cannot be the subject of calculation, because it leaves distinct, but does not oppose, cause and “ratio”. The issue is how existence relates to consistence, which does not exist, to compose (with) the incalculable: “One must have had in the poem a number such that it prevents counting”[1] writes the poet and playwright Paul Claudel (1868-1955), and so it is not that there is no God for, although he does not exist, he consists. It is the same for art, justice, and ideas in general. Ideas do not exist: they only consist. Such is their strength, their power, as Freud says. Such is the power of knowledge, taste, wisdom.

With God dead, the devil yet remains, and as trust consumes and eliminates any belief, it risks forever ruining the industrial-becoming of the world. However, first and foremost this is a case of not diabolising the devil [diaboliser ce diable 2]. This is about fighting the hegemony of calculative trust, which eats itself [autophage] and can only engender discredit. For if God is dead, in other words the revelation of his absence, it does not necessarily nullify the issue of consistence, with the development of the spirit of capitalism, calculable becoming is what is planned, as existences (as singularities), consistencies (ideas, knowledge and powers) this becoming, without this future which is not automatically equivalent, is what tends to reduce these consistencies to ashes: the ashes of nonexistent and inconsistent subsistence. Insipid.

This is the consumption it is necessary to fight, as economic hegemony, questioning anew the belief in politics.

This is an issue of who can say yes to becoming, but with the condition here of distinguishing a future that does not obviously and entirely coincide with becoming. Confusion of the two is precisely how disbelief becomes the carrier of discredit. This is what has pushed the entire political class into a shameful cynicism that purely reduces modernity to the management of the need to adapt to power without knowledge of calculation. However, belief can never consist of the projection in and towards what takes place beyond any adaptable horizon because the reason for any real invention proceeds from the power of ideas, which is to say that any opening (through work, labour) of a future is as equally possible as it is indeterminate.

The question of belief in politics must revisit and distinguish, but not oppose, “otium” and “negotium”, placed at the heart of the political question of culture defined as a worship of this distinction, which does not oppose but compose without renunciation. Culture is by no means ghettoized by any “cultural policy”, whether it is national, European or even global (UN) or whether it is traditional or “hypermodernist”, in which “exception” or “diversity” may form a good or bad conscience: In the age of cultural capitalism, politics must principally become a politics of singularities, for the invention of a new industrial age and an ecology of spirit [écologie de l’esprit].

[1] The translation of this passage is taken from Daniel Ross’ translation of Stiegler B. 2011 The Decadence of Industrial Democracies: Disbelief and Discredit 1. Polity, Cambridge. See page 90.

[2] Elsewhere Stiegler plays on the image of the diabol/devil as a divisive force in the processes of transindividuation – the “great third that constitutes authority as such, beyond the I and the we”:
“If ‘God is dead’, the ‘devil’ is still alive and well. This is what remains for thought–as that which is contained in the remains, that is, in the traces of the he that has become, in its death, the primary material of consciousness commensurable on the market” (Acting Out, p. 71).

(Visited 157 times, 1 visits today)