Book of the Week: Adam Arvidsson on Ethics and the General Intellect, 2

We continue the pre-publication of Adam Arvidsson’s second chapter of The Ethical Economy.

Today, Adam discusses Ethics and capital

‘Ethics’ derives form the Greek which can mean both ‘habit’ (from etomai to use to ..) and ‘character’ mood or, affective state (as in o miaron eton kai gynaikos ysteron- the terrible character that rests in a woman). Ethos relates to that which is shaped in and concerns the interaction between people, whether this be social habits and institutions or subjective moods. Furthermore, for the Greeks, Ethics applied to the interaction between free men, and not to the interaction between men and animals or slaves. Thus the space of ethics was also a space of freedom, where interaction was not predetermined by rigid hierarchies ultimately sanctioned by overwhelming power, but subject to some degree of contingency and openness. It is thus clear that already from the Greeks, ethics, or the ethical problematic, has been concerned with more or less autonomous processes of interaction in which forms of sociality and subjectivity, or, in other worlds, a common social world are shaped. This connection of ethics to the common as a space for autonomy has a long tradition in European continental philosophy, from Hegel to Arendt. Indeed, for Hannah Arendt the fundamentally ethical nature of human nature, and thus the status of human beings as zoon politicon, was based on their capacity to construct a common social world through interaction and communication. Human beings distinguish themselves by their ability to produce what Maurizio Lazzarato has called an ‘ethical surplus’ a more or less table and enduring thing in common: a social relation, an affective experience or a value judgement, that was not there before.

That very same tradition has consistently understood forms of social relations imposed by capital in its ongoing subsumtion of the social as directly antithetical to the fundamentally ethical nature of human nature. To Arendt, the overall discipline that resulted from this process (what she called ‘socialization’) simply deprived human beings of their ethical nature and reduced them to rule-bound creatures, enacting the objective laws of the market or of bureaucratic rationality. Consequently the rise of ‘society’ in the shape of a state managed capitalist administration of the social also deprived human existence of its ethical, and by extension also its political dimension. Habermas argues along similar lines in his thesis of the colonization of the lifeworld.

It is true that Fordist managerial discipline aimed at a neutralization of the ethical or affective aspects of work. The aim of Taylorism was to reduce the worker to an appendage to the machine and to minimize the margin of error and insecurity in his interaction with his fellows as well as with the machine environment. Similarly, early 20th century marketing was conceived as a ‘programming of consumption’ in which spontaneous, ‘irrational’ consumer desires and forms of consumer sociality were to be replaced by programmed desires for a particular range of goods together with the pre-constituted forms of sociality that they implied, like, principally, the nuclear family. As in the logic of the ISAs analysed by Althusser, the goal was the pre-constitution of subjectivity and social relations and hence the reduction to a minimum of the space for ethics. Viewed with recent developments in mind however, this ‘unethical’ nature of capitalism seems to have been more like a passing phase in a more general development. Capital, I would suggest, does not so much obliterate, as much as it re-mediates the ethical.

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