McKenzie Wark on Capital, Capitalism, and Expanding Our Language

Our data is everywhere. From Facebook likes to online personality quizzes, our internet clicks leave an ongoing record of our personalities, our preferences, and our habits.

This information is the new currency of the 21st century. Our very sociability has been commodified, and those who own and control our data form a new ruling class, argues McKenzie Wark, Professor of Culture and Media, in her latest book, Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? “If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold,” she says.

A follow-up to A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004), Capital Is Dead draws on Wark’s past work, the work of contemporary theorists, and the writing of the Situationists to explore the information age. Wark poses the questions: What if this era cannot be defined by capitalism anymore — and what if it’s something worse? Research Matters sat down with Wark to discuss her latest book and the process behind developing her new theory. 

Wark’s main argument is this: The new ruling class uses our information against us to deter labor and social movements, thereby changing the way we must look at traditional leftist ideas around capital. 

The book opens with a quote from writer Kathy Acker, a friend and collaborator of Wark’s and the focus of both a class she teaches and an upcoming NSSR seminar she’ll lead: “Post-capitalists’ general strategy right now is to render language (all that which signifies) abstract therefore easily manipulable.” With capitalism is no longer an efficient descriptor for today’s chain of production, Wark explains that failure to innovate new language may be a major part of the problem. “It struck me that a phrase like neoliberal capitalism is just incredibly bad poetry,” she says. “You just shove a modifier on something that you then don’t think about the thing you’re modifying, the modifier has a modifier. That’s not a thought to me.” Additionally, a new form of class relation has arisen in response to this data commodification, one that cannot be contained by terms such as “capitalist” and “worker.”

Creating a New Vocabulary

Instead, Capital is Dead provides a new descriptive language to better navigate this flow and ownership of information and properly analyze a new world of data. Wark gives us the terms “vectoralist class,” those who own not only the flow of information, but the “legal and technical protocols for making otherwise abundant information scarce,” as well as “hacker class,” the vast majority who are producing new information. She urges us to see “a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value. ” While not exactly the same as labor, Wark notes from Marx’s writings that “there are always many subordinate classes….modes of production are multiple and overlapping.” As expected in a book about capital, discussions of class, production, commodities, and struggle wind their way through the text, but with considerations and redefinitions for how those forms are changing or are no longer applicable.

Wark also addresses science and the challenges of the current Anthropocene era, weaving through theorists from Joseph Neeham to Jean-Paul Sartre to make connections between natural and social history, and how the hacker class might look to the former for new models of organization.

Building on her wealth of celebrated prior research, articles for the intellectual commons Public Seminar, and other published writings, Wark says this latest thought experiment is ”summing up or maybe concluding things that I have been working on for a long time.” She also shares that writing practice was a major part of her research process to produce this thought experiment. 

“I’m a writer,” she says “Media studies is my discipline, but that was a bit accidental. So what I practice is writing and how we understand, in this case, Marx and the various people in the conceptual space of Marx as writers, and how did they invent or create new languages that cut across the assumptions of the times.”

Collaborating for Learning and for Survival

One of the more challenging parts in Wark’s theory is accepting how little is actually known about this new controlling vectoralist class. Rather than assuming they can be analyzed in the same way as capitalists, she makes the case for starting over with the critique strategies and looking for a way out.

Wark emphasizes that these questions raised in Capital is Dead can only be answered together, working across disciplines and fields. “Humanities and the social sciences really do need to think about what a collaborative production of knowledge looks like,” she says. “What are collaborative practices of knowledge that reach outside of disciplinary assumptions and cultural habits?”

These questions help guide the courses Wark creates and teaches at NSSR and at Eugene Lang College. Drawing largely on the work of other writers and theorists, she aims to share with her students knowledge and work practices that enable them to survive in this political economy,  “It’s about living,” she says of both studying and surviving in the current political economy of knowledge.

During the 2019-2020 year, Wark is teaching courses at NSSR and at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in which she does just that, with a particular focus on trans issues. In “Trans Theory as Gender Theory”, a Spring 2020 course in NSSR’s Department of Liberal Studies, Wark and her students will work together on constructing alternate pathways into the research on gender and sexuality. Much like in Capital Is Dead, Wark also hopes the class will develop new concepts for trans literature, art, and media that don’t fit neatly into existing theoretical categories.

Pushing those boundaries is essential to Wark’s work, but she’s not always met with positive response. The introduction to Capital is Dead offers a range of reactions from scholars and activists to her work ⁠— as well as Wark’s dry, hilarious responses. “They’re a lot of Marxists who think like cops and that’s just boring,” Wark laughs.

Living After Capitalism

So if this isn’t capitalism and we’re still not quite sure of what it is, is there a way out of it? Wark is wary of treading into false hope for the future. In A Hacker Manifesto, Wark saw a path to reclaim the commodification of information — a battle she now deems as lost. 

“A moment of defeat is useful to acknowledge and retreat and try to secure any basis at all of non-commodified social life,” she says. “There is a very narrow possibility of surviving this century.” Wark is critical of false optimism that accompanies some “allegedly leftist theory.” To her, an accurate assessment of the social and political climate is critical for any shred of hope in radically changing it. “It’s all a bit bleak,” she says. 

However, as Wark writes, “This was in the end a defeated movement, but that is no reason to pretend that it didn’t exist. Rather, there’s work to be done to narrate and analyze the struggles of that time and those that continue as relatively novel expressions of what kinds of worlds are possible in and against the forces of production of these times.”

Psychology Flexes on the Dance Floor

Last fall, Ragnhild (Ragz) Bruland received $10,000 at the AC3 Festival and Conference for Flex, a youth dance mentorship program she co-founded five years ago. The award — a major nod of approval at one of the hip-hop community’s biggest events — has given a major boost to Ragz, a Cognitive, Social, and Developmental Psychology PhD student at The New School for Social Research, as well as to the Flex teachers and students she works with.

As the New School News wrote in 2018:

The FLEX program employs renowned dancers from the local community to work with students on choreographing dance routines; stimulating students’ creativity while also helping them to develop their self-esteem, cooperation, and communication. Currently there are two modules of the program, “FlexIN” which works with students on-site in secure detention centers, and “FlexOUT” which provides free workshops for students in community centers in New York City.

The teacher-student relationship is absolutely crucial to the program. “One of the aims of this program is to introduce these kids to a community of dance where they can learn and practice a constructive artistic outlet,” writes Ragz. “Mentorship, one of the key components in Flex, provides youth with a touchstone of safely to rely on — developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in a young person’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves.”

The Flex program isn’t just grounded in psychology research; it’s also contributing to the field. Ragz has worked closely with advisor Howard Steele, Professor of Psychology, to develop an experimental framework to evaluate the program.

“The overarching inquiry of this research is to discover if there are aspects of Flex that may make it more beneficial than traditional mentorship alone,” she writes. Three groups are part of Ragz’s research: those who participate in the full Flex dancing and mentorship program; those who only receive mentorship; and those who do not participate in the program. Everyone involved in the study completes short questionnaires designed to assess social emotional functioning as well as resilience. In addition, all participants as well as Flex teachers join in semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. 

Research is ongoing, and involves several graduate students from NSSR as well as the Schools for Public Engagement. However, several Flex participants can already attest to how the program has changed lives. Sticks Harvey, a 29-year-old Flex teacher, got involved five years ago, right as Ragz was getting the program off the ground. “I liked Ragz’s vision and what she understood Flex to be,” he says. “This is an approach for youth to channel their anger and do something different. Instead of being violent, you could dance it off.” 

Credit: @Anwander

He signed up to demonstrate the dance at a youth detention center but stuck around to teach. A highlight for him was working with youth to put a program together for a family visitation day. “When they perform and got praise, that was new for them,” says Harvey. “Even if they say they’re not dancers, it gives them a chance to try. And there’s no pressure. Not everyone gets it right away.” 

He’s not the only one whose life has been changed. “Flex gave me a new path careerwise,” Harvey says. “My mind reshaped when I met these teens. I try to be a more positive leader for them.”

Marie Borden is a mostly self-taught dancer who began studying Flex about eight years ago and recently joined the Flex program as a teacher. “Flexing is a form of freedom, a form of creativity,” the 28-year-old says. Working with Ragz as well as with elementary and middle school-age youth, she has seen firsthand how dancing can help students express themselves and handle anger and pain. “They don’t know how to release their emotions, and I help them with that. When kids come to me with problems, I tell them, ‘Don’t think about what to do, just dance!’ And they feel a lot better.”

When Harvey and Borden talk about their experiences Flexing, they are careful to cite their many teachers and recognize their place in the growing Flex legacy. Now, they’ve become those teachers for another generation of youth. “What was passed down to me continues to be passed down,” says Harvey, commenting on both the dancing as well as the culture that surrounds it.

Flex is fundraising to expand the program and support the research project. Come see Flex teachers and students celebrate the program’s fifth anniversary with FLEX HYPE, performed live on Friday, September 27, 7 PM at The New School, and on Saturday, September 28, 7 PM at BRIC. 

Imagined Futures: NSSR Welcomes Jens Beckert, Economic Sociologist and 2019-2020 Heuss Professor

If the human experience tends toward chaos, then many economists consider it their job to take that chaos and lay bare the rationality underlying it. Especially during the last 70 years, economists have increasingly focused on assumptions that individuals behave rationally by making all kinds of economic calculi; similarly, at the social level, both firms and states operate according to implicit rational principles to minimize loss and maximize gain.

But there are many who challenge that orthodoxy, thinkers who ask: Is this really the case? Among them are many scholars at The New School for Social Research (NSSR), well-known for its focus on heterodox economics.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, NSSR will welcome one of those challengers, Jens Beckert, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Köln, Germany, to the Department of Sociology. He’ll be here as the Heuss Professor, a distinguished visiting professorship that brings a prominent German academic to NSSR each year to conduct research and teach, maintaining the longstanding bond between The New School and the German academic world. Learn more in this RM profile of Hubertus Buchstein, 2018-2019 Heuss Professor.

Relating Economics to Social Structures

Beckert specializes in economic sociology, a subdiscipline that explores the correlation between economic processes and the social and cultural structures in which economic action is embedded. His work focuses on the subtle non-economic and non-rational foundations of economic theory and practice, with a particular interest in markets as the most important mechanisms for the allocation of goods in capitalist economies. 

“The economic description of markets would be that these are all hyper-rational actors that have no moral boundaries and just pursue their interests,” he says. “But it is my conviction that actually an economy only based on this would collapse. It needs, in a way, a social addition on which it rests at the same time. If you have only rational actors, no institution could work.”

Beckert was a graduate student at NSSR in the early 1990s, when economic sociology began to emerge as a field. His dissertation considered the way in which classical sociological authors, from Parsons to Giddens, had theorized the economy. For his habilitation at Free University of Berlin, a German qualifying benchmark for university-level teaching, Beckert focused on social inequality and the long-term transmission of wealth. Diving into two centuries of inheritance law history in France, Germany and the U.S., he ambitiously explored how inheritance law had shifted through periods of industrialization, reforms or revolutions, including the emergence of social democracy and the labor movement.

Now, several decades later, Beckert is taking on an even bigger topic: how capitalism shapes our experience of time.

Imagining the Future

In his latest work, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Beckert develops an analysis of capitalism focused on a novel way of thinking about time. “With capitalism, there is a change in the temporal orientation of societies. Societies don’t pursue the future anymore as a repetition of the past, like what you had in agricultural societies. But they see the future as an open field in which they find opportunities but also risks, of course,” he explains. This cultural and psychological shift is supported by specific institutions and practices, from generalized competition to the proliferation of debt and credit, that change our relationship to time in a way that further enables the development of capitalist production.

Beckert argues that this is a crucial and understudied dimension of capitalist development, for which he has offered the notion of “imagined futures,” or “fictional expectations.” “To explain the dynamics of capitalism, we need to put this future orientation of actors front and center,” he says. While capitalism has a foundation in rational calculation, it also encourages daydreaming and speculation as responses to  a kind of uncertainty that is not treatable within the standard economic frameworks.

Imagined futures are the outcome of endless modeling and speculation, which also makes use of calculative devices and creates the expectations that generate economic activity despite the incalculability of future outcomes.

Beckert has found that his book has been surprisingly popular also in the business world.  “Companies are interested in this. When I give talks there, people know immediately what I’m talking about…They have to make all kinds of plans and projections, often on more or less arbitrary assumptions.”

It’s not just firms that make assumptions; academic economists make them, too. “I’m interested in the function of economic theories for the practices in the economy,” Beckert said. Economic theories have a performative effect: They guide agent behavior and thus may end up having the effect they describe by sheer force of influence. “I don’t want to say that reality becomes like economic theory. But something happens in reality as an effect of the theory, and that is the point,” Beckert clarifies.

For his pioneering work, Beckert was recently awarded the Leibniz Prize, considered the highest scientific research prize in Germany. He hopes to use the 2.5 million Euro award to advance the cause of economic sociology by funding researchers to further develop these ideas.

Thinking ahead at his year at NSSR, Beckert is looking forward to moving from a smaller institute to a bigger university and engaging with colleagues across New York-area university. He’s also “excited about the students and about the teaching part of learning from the students.” In Fall 2019, he will teach Economy and Society, an introduction to the major theories, approaches, and topics in economic sociology. And students in his Spring 2020 class on Imaginaries, Narratives, and Calculation in the Economy, will get a in-depth look at the topics from his latest book, including how actors deal with uncertainty of the future and how calculative instruments and imaginaries are used to shape economic futures.

Lucas Perelló, Politics PhD Candidate, Wins Fulbright to Honduras

Free elections contested by parties are central to our conventional notions of democracy. But on what basis does a voter relate to their party: ideology, favors, personal interests, something else? And once party systems are established, how do they evolve? For New School for Social Research Politics PhD candidate Lucas Perelló, these questions provide the framework for his dissertation. And starting in September, he’ll be investigating them as a Fulbright Scholar in a country going through a nearly unprecedented political shift: Honduras.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Chile, Perelló studied politics broadly before focusing on comparative politics, especially in Latin America. After completing an MA in Chile, Perelló completed an MA in Applied Quantitative Research at New York University. But as he approached a career as a political scientist, he felt something was lacking. Looking to expand his conceptual formation, Perelló moved a few blocks north to NSSR.

“The New School overlapped with one of my other interests, which was to expand my methodological knowledge qualitatively. I was drawn to the emphasis given to aspects of development to solve conceptualizing things differently, giving you a different theoretical lenses to study particular political phenomenon.”

Political Party Shift

Immersing himself in empirical case studies and theory, Perelló began to formulate a research plan that married these elements tightly while renewing his passion for comparative approaches. “I study how political parties, and how is it and why is it that party systems change…and how it is that political parties engage with voters,” Perelló says. In this case, ‘political party systems’ refers to how elections are set up, whether voters choose between two parties or multiple parties. The question of party linkages looks at how parties get votes.

“This is a continuous debate within political science and comparative politics, but originally people thought political parties would appeal to voters on either on a programmatic basis, or a clientelist basis, or a charismatic one.” In other words, people vote for a party based on either an ideological agreement, a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a vote can be redeemed for favors, or force or personal magnetism of a candidate alone.

Of course, one party can have multiple sorts of such ‘linkages’ with voters, varying according to target demographic, general level of development, or ideology, and changing over time. With this interest party linkages and their evolution, Perelló was drawn to a comparatively understudied region, Central America, specifically Honduras. “Honduras actually presents very interesting insights into the entire discussion of party system change, and the types of party linkages that exist within society,” Perelló says.

Case Study: Honduras

Like many Latin American countries, Honduras transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. For several decades after — even through a coup in 2009 — the country featured a two-party system that operated on a decisively clientelist model. But in the 2013 elections, a fundamental shift occurred: the two-party system gave way to a multi-party one, including an upstart Anti-Corruption Party led by a popular sportscaster.

“What is interesting about this change is that not only did the party system change quite abruptly, but the types of linkages that the political parties are adopting also shifted suddenly,” Perelló explains. Whereas clientelism and corruption were once the norm, programmatic appeals on the basis of ideology are gaining ground, especially among wealthier constituencies.  

There are several reasons that clientelism can lose its power. Appeals based on loyalty-for-favors become weaker as countries become wealthier. Additionally, clientelism can disenfranchise large parts of a population. “There’s many levels associated with this, but at least in the Honduran context these are very exclusive networks,” says Perelló. “For example, you can have a low-income household that is very dependent on some specific policies. The benefits that you might receive from these policies that are actually aimed at reducing poverty are contingent upon who you vote for. And [the government can] keep the electorate poor because they’re dependent on them if they want to stay in power. It’s been so entrenched that the way that it also molds how individual voters, how citizens actually see democracy.”

Because this shift from clientelism to programmatic appeals in developing countries is so unusual, Honduras is a fascinating case study against which to test existing theories of party systems and linkages. Perelló has visited Honduras several times, but found that pervasive clientelism made it nearly impossible to access the people and spaces relevant to his research. It also made for an interesting situation of mistaken identity. Once, while dressed up for a visit to the National Congress, dozens of older women surrounded him. “They approached me with receipts, with CDs, pictures of their kids, asking me if I could get their sons or their daughters who just graduated a job, if I could help them pay for receipt of electricity,” he says. Only when he opened his mouth to speak — in Chilean Spanish — did the crowd realize he was not a government official and could not help them. Local politicians were similarly reluctant to let Perelló in, stonewalling him or only disclosing details of the opposition’s approach.

Opening New Doors

Returning for 10 months with the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and an office and teaching position at Central American Technological University (UNITEC), Perelló is hopeful that more doors will open to him, especially among the political elite. “I really need to spend more time there — more time to conduct interviews, more archival research,” he says. He applied to several different grants and credits his Fulbright success to the wisdom and guidance of David Plotke, Professor of Politics and his dissertation advisor, as well as Tsuya Yee, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. But he’s cautious: “A Fulbright can work in favor or against you in the sense that, perhaps you’re seen as a representative of the U.S. government who’s meddling around internal politics of a country that has been historically intervened by the U.S. But at least to get my foot in the academic world, Fulbright has so far worked in my favor!”

Despite his focus on Honduras, Perelló believes his project can help scholars and the public understand how political systems can move away from clientelism, and how two-party systems can become more open and contested. “My overall objective in understanding these changes is to understand how can you strengthen democracy in countries that have such a strong authoritarian past.”

Hubertus Buchstein on the Heuss Professorship and Otto Kirchheimer

Connections between The New School for Social Research and Germany are both long-standing and numerous, ranging from the University in Exile in the 1930s to the Technical University of Dresden exchange program today,

A transformative moment in this transatlantic relationship happened in 1965, when New School President John Everett worked with the Volkswagen Foundation to create the Theodor Heuss Chair of the Social Sciences. Named for the first president of West Germany, this was the first professorship in the United States supported by a German foundation; Volkswagen endowed the chair for five years, after which the German federal government assumed responsibility. According to the most recent history of The New School for Social Research by Judith Friedlander, the chair “evolved out of earlier exchanges of mutual recognition and appreciation” between Heuss and New School leadership; like many University in Exile faculty members, Heuss himself had been dismissed from an academic position by the Nazis in the 1930s.

Early Heuss Professors included sociologists and philosophers who had studied critical theory in postwar Frankfurt School with the original founders of the Institute for Social Research, among them Jürgen Habermas. Today, the Heuss Professorship rotates between NSSR departments.

In 2018-2019, the Politics Department welcomed Hubertus Buchstein, a Full Professor in Political Theory and History of Political Ideas at the University of Greifswald. In addition to teaching a spring seminar on Habermas and the current work of Critical Theorists in Germany, he also completed extensive archival research on political theorist and University in Exile professor Otto Kirchheimer. Read on for more about his year here.

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RESEARCH MATTERS: So I hear you’ve been to The New School a few times before! Can you tell us about your own academic history and what brought you here?

HUBERTUS BUCHSTEIN: When I was working on my PhD thesis at the Free University of Berlin in the late 1980s, the topic involved some emigrants I knew were at The New School. So when for the first time in my life I came to America in 1990, I went to The New School. I wanted to see the building where Hannah Arendt had been — I simply wanted to be at the building!

I also got in contact with Andrew Arato and his wife Jean Cohen. He was the only one in the huge Frankfurt School camp who wrote critically about Eastern Europe. When I came back as a Humboldt Research Fellow in 1994, I taught a class with Andrew on the political sociology of the Frankfurt School. I came for the next seven years, every year for two months in February and March, and taught a class twice a week.

Since then I’m still in close contact with The New School and I come every year to New York. It was very easy to make friends here, to get to know people. It’s very international and this was totally different than what I knew.

RM: It was that different than Berlin?

HB: Berlin is Germany’s biggest city. But in comparison to New York it was a sleeping city. And in those days my Political Science department in Berlin didn’t have so many international students, in particular from Eastern Europe and from Latin America.

Teaching was also quite different. Here it’s more lecture-style seminars. In Germany we start in our theory classes with a discussion of the text. We have assigned sometimes 20, 30 pages only for class and the students have to read them three times so it’s like 80 pages. Here you assign a book but you can’t always do such a close reading. I really had to adjust to this style of teaching.