Are You An Idiot?

Neal Curtis, Idiotism: Capitalism and the Privatisation of Life

Pluto Press, 184pp, £21.99, ISBN 9780745331553

reviewed by Stuart Walton

One of global capitalism's subtlest achievements has been to convince its client populations throughout the developed and developing worlds that it has made available to them a potentially limitless field of social, economic and cultural opportunity. In opposition to the monolithic state communism of the former eastern bloc, but also against the misguided strictures of social democracy in its self-defeating obsession with welfarism and redistributive taxation, the global market frees each individual subject to extend itself to the full elastic limit of its self-realisation. In this, it congratulates itself only half-ironically on having carried out the Marxist desideratum that the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, releasing postmodern subjectivity into a dynamic field of choices, potentialities and re-fashionings, according to the tenor of the individual's unbounded desire.

The reality has been somewhat at odds with the ideology. Deregulation of the markets accompanied the financialisation of the world economy set in motion in the late 1970s, resulting in the enslavement of whole populations to personal and national debt. Monetarism compensated its victims for their depressed wages with the offer of a credit boom, and eventually oversaw the outsourcing of labour to markets where it came more cheaply and could be bought with fewer institutional safeguards. Forms of political organisation have withered under the wholesale commissioning-out of policy decisions to financial consultants, and the concomitant transformation of the electoral apparatus into a gigantic PR exercise. Meanwhile, the individuals who might once have constituted a collective resistance to the prevailing system are frozen in atomised isolation at their computer keyboards, bickering with other disembodied entities on Facebook or racking up scores on Black Ops.

In a usage plangent with rhetorical force, Neal Curtis diagnoses this global condition as 'idiotism', referring the term back to its productively ambiguous Greek etymology. Idios means 'private', in the juridical sense that denotes private belongings or personal opinions, but also in the restrictive sense that an idiotes was someone whose lack of special knowledge or expertise disqualified him or her from participation in the public realm of the polis. These twin valences inform the lives of capitalism's subjects in the age of global finance and electronic communication. The supreme paradox of the rule of a financial oligarchy that, despite its implosion in 2008, has been saved from obsolescence by enforced public subvention, is that it is awarded its hegemonic role under the official principle of decentralisation, of devolving economic choice on the individual consumer. And yet it is only as a collective economic agent that the mass of society is enlisted to confer its blessing, at gunpoint, on the predominance of globalised exchange. 'Idiotism,' Curtis writes, 'remains entirely parasitic on a host it claims does not exist.'

Successive chapters on the economic and political mechanisms of idiot capitalism rehearse the structures and institutional effects of the present dispensation, all the way to the foul requirement for candidates for even the most menial of jobs to pretend to identify with them spiritually, their passion for toilet-cleaning so intense that they are prepared to let potential employers audit the unadulterated contents of their bloodstreams to prove their eligibility.

It's in a chapter on 'Idiotism and Culture', though, that Curtis's theory gains its greatest traction. Here is something like an outline of what the later Frankfurt School would have made of the electronic era. The universal 'bustle' that Theodor Adorno derided in the 1960s has become the chatter of instant-access information, the speed of which, as Curtis poignantly remarks, creates the sense that we are never quite keeping up with all there is to know. Participation in localised forms of political activity takes the form of clicking 'Yes' to an online petition to stop the badgers being gassed, before one logs on to the internet dating site in hope of replies. The notorious cookies that support what the internet knows, in a grotesque phrase, as 'behavioural advertising' watch carefully to see where our tapping fingers go, so that commercial organisations can broadcast their messages to us more pervasively, ensuring that we remain fed on an invariant regimen of the self-same. Connecting to celebrities on Twitter has enabled participants to feel, albeit in a largely one-sided sense, that they have somehow penetrated the inner sanctum, for all that the celebrities themselves are 'now celebrated for nothing beyond the immediate fact of having made themselves more visible than other people'.

What is largely missing from this otherwise richly suggestive account is a more fully expounded dialectical investigation of the relations between the public and private realms the argument delineates. In accepting that what the Frankfurt theorists liked to call the 'totally administered society' remains more securely in place than ever, despite the 2008 calamity, the argument overlooks the less obvious mediating processes that take place between the public and the private. In the cultural realm, it remains true, as Curtis argues, that acts such as buying fair-trade chocolates online stand for the commodification of ethical awareness, and yet there are other ways in which electronic contact has enabled the elaboration of a sense of self even within the constricting bounds of the global orthodoxy. A Facebook friend, Curtis reports, is upbraided for treating his own page as an extension of his therapist's office, but why wouldn't that be potentially more constructive than using it solely to put up links to Youtube videos or remember each other's birthdays? It may well be that what present conditions have brought about is a privatisation of the public, but might there not be some subversive potential in a publicisation of the private, a phenomenon that, if anything, Curtis is inclined to deplore as the degrading of the public to nothing more dignified than 'exposure'.

Then, too, it has always been possible to construe the private not just as a retreat into solipsism, but instead as a place of resort from a contaminated public realm. Privacy doesn't have to be equated axiomatically with the solitary. There are ways of being private together, in the forms of underground cellular political activity in conditions of dire repression, of samizdat literature, of love-relationships that defy a proscriptive orthodoxy, of the use of banned intoxicants. From these forms of dissident privacy have often emerged habits of consciousness that defy the status quo more comprehensively than the public phenomena of demonstrations and sit-ins. Granted, there is no 'outside of capitalism', as Alain Badiou puts it, but there are interstitial spaces within it where its writ doesn't run. It is at least possible, although a desperate wager to be sure, that forms of resistance may continue to arise from something like a collective of singularities, rather than the old-fashioned mobilisations that capitalism has always been adept at assimilating, where it hasn't felt the need to crush them.

If these traces represent too faint a glow of rebellious ardour, amounting to barely more than the mental agility that was the only vestige of Marxism his enemies saw in the later thought of Adorno, the only alternative is the old recourse to collective strategy. For this, nothing other than the classic continuum Slavoj Žižek has recently outlined will suffice. A protest must evolve into a movement, and a movement into a party with a leader, to promulgate a fully elaborated programme. Curtis is more or less allergic to any such talk, however, pointing out with the aid of Martin Heidegger, of all the improbable metaphysical allies, that all such enterprises tend to solidify into dogmatic rigidity. What seems preferable is politics as a continuous search for a permanently elusive truth, rather than one predicated on 'any ultimate ground or foundation'. But then why look for truth particularly, as opposed to, say, happiness or fun? Politics should indeed be a self-reflective method, rather than a steady state. Bureaucratic degeneration did indeed ruin the 20th century's attempts at Marxism on the national scale, but political practice as a contentless pursuit of chimerical truth has produced nothing of any greater impact than the Occupy episode, a purely formal representation of protest, complete with nuisance value and trick-or-treat comedy masks, but tongue-tied when it came to deciding what it wanted to achieve, and therefore how it would know when it had achieved it. Might it be that the tent-encampments in the parks and on cathedral greens were precisely idiotism's version of dissenting politics?
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.