Deleuze and Guattari’s ambiguous relationship to neoliberalism

Reading Douglas Spencer’s contribution to the latest issue of Radical Philosophy, I was struck again by the unfortunate way in which Deleuze and Guattari’s work in their Capitalism and Schizophrenia project has come to reflect the present stage of global capitalism.  In his article, ‘Architectural Deleuzism: Neoliberal space, control and the “univer-city” ‘ (the beginning of which is available here), Spencer discusses the way in which Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts have been taken up by an architectural practice eager for a post-Derridean intellectual stimulus.  Inattentive to the critical political nuances of Deleuze and Guattari’s texts, however, this ‘architectural Deleuzism’ has read these concepts as an intellectualising vindication of the ‘progressive’ potential of the neoliberal expansion of market forces into all aspects of social reality.  Deleuze and Guattari’s vision of a ‘rhizomatic’ (as opposed to ‘arborescent’) practice of thinking and living – an opening up of reality and thought to its repressed potentialities, an exploration of and experimentation with what a body can do – becomes the philosophical alibi for the architectural (hence, spatial) production and promulgation of homo economicus and the ‘control society’ which Foucault and Deleuze respectively so keenly diagnosed and analysed.

This sort of (mis-/ab-)use of Deleuze and Guattari’s work isn’t just evident in the architectural sphere.  Spencer’s comments are remeniscent of those made by Eyal Weizman in an article for the May 2006 issue of Frieze, in which Weizman discusses the use of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts by the military strategists of the IDF (here).  Israeli military commanders, it would seem, have found rhizomatic thinking to be a productive approach in their ‘security’ efforts.  Once against, Deleuze and Guattari’s diagnostics of mechanisms of psycho-social and spatio-temporal repression, disciplinarity and control, along with their (quasi-)anarchist vision of a ‘smoother’, more open, more creative and productive social reality have been co-opted as a philosophical validation and even a source of inspiration and innovation for some of the most aggressive control apparatuses of contemporary capitalism.

Why does Deleuze and Guattari’s work find itself at the centre of this unfortunate ambiguity?  We might seek to suggest that either the word or the spirit (or both) of their work has been misinterpreted so as to serve a political end with which it is quite out of sorts.  This would be to cast the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari’s work and neoliberal capitalism as analogous to that between Nietzsche’s work and National Socialism: a (possibly opportunistic) misappropriation of a thinker’s work through (more or less deliberate) misreading.

Such a suggestion doesn’t seem to cut the muster, though, the reason being that an understanding of the market as the subversive/progressive core of capitalism – working, in a sense, against the ‘reterritorialising’ force of capital itself – does seem to be a legitimate interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari’s work.  This is evidenced in Nick Land’s ‘accelerationism’, which, it seems to me, does bring out a genuinely present aspect of the Capitalism and Schizophrenia project, at least its first volume.  Even if accelerationism is something of a selective exaggeration or amplification, I don’t think it’s a distortion in the way that Elisabeth Förster’s ‘Nazification’ of her brother’s work and Nietzsche’s subsequent popular reception as a ‘totalitarian’ thinker was a distortion.

Perhaps, then, we can read Deleuze and Guattari’s relationship to neoliberalism analogously to the way in which Juliet Mitchell reads Freud on women and femininity in her 1974 Psychoanalysis and Feminism.  In that text, Mitchell argues that Freud’s supposedly conservative and chauvinistic comments on women and femininity are in fact an important diagnosis of the actual state of women in the contemporary social milieu.  If Freud’s theories paint a picture of women which feminists deem repugnant this is only to be expected, since Freud’s aim is to describe the state and genesis of feminine sexuality in a social context in which the latter is stifling and oppressive.  Far from engaging in a conservative affirmation of anti-feminist views of women, Freud is seen by Mitchell as doing important diagnostic work, and thus demonstrating the need for feminism more effectively than the more ‘radical’ work of R. D. Laing and Wilhelm Reich.

Can we read Deleuze and Guattari as offering a diagnosis, rather than an affirmation, of neoliberalism?  The problem here is that Deleuze and Guattari’s work, unlike Freud’s, is more clearly already distinguished into a diagnostic element and a prescriptive or affirmative element (although these two elements are not so straightforwardly separable as this abstract description will suggest).  On the one hand there is a diagnosis of the mechanisms of control which contain and channel the productive power of desire and drive, and on the other there is an affirmation of this power as the subversive kernel of these mechanisms, their immanent limit and the potential agent of their overcoming.  The problem, then, is that it is the latter which seems to ring true with contemporary neoliberal capitalism; that is, it is Deleuze and Guattari’s positive vision of a rhizomatic social space which seems to have been realised in neoliberal capitalism.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari painted a picture of the repression of productive desire through psycho-social neuroticisation and the containment of the free creativity of social production within the ‘axiomatic’ of capital.  Despite all the nuances of their picture it was, at base, a fairly simple dualism between deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation.  A Thousand Plateaus complicated matters a little further, but the fundamental dualism remained nonetheless.  Today the situation seems to have become more complicated, insofar as the two poles of this dualism appear to have been, as it were, ‘sublated’.  Today, the sort of language Deleuze and Guattari used in the 1970s and early 1980s to talk about the revolutionary power of desire bubbling beneath the surface of the global flow of capital has become largely indiscernable from the language of corporate capital itself, and so the emancipatory flavour of their words and concepts often seems to have dissipated.

The question is whether this is a sign of Deleuze and Guattari’s supreme prescience, and hence of the problematic character of this convergence of supposedly revolutionary deterritorialisation and capitalist reterritorialisation for capitalism itself.  If Deleuze and Guattari are right, and desire (in their anachronistic sense) is both the engine of capital and the spanner in the works, and if capitalism displays an inherent tendency to push the disintegration of social reality and organisation to its breaking point, then perhaps ever increasing neoliberalisation is as much of a threat to the stable persistence of global capitalism as it is to the billions of people hurt and exploited by capitalism around the world.  Certainly neoliberalism has made capitalism less stable, although this instability has often proved productive rather than destructive insofar as capital requires the perpetual or at least periodic creation of new markets in order to thrive; it has also thrown the exploitative character of capitalism into sharp relief and thus generated waves of resistance, more staunch the more virulently neoliberalism has been implemented.

All this raises further questions: Even if neoliberalism pushes capitalism to its limits, what is needed in order for those limits to be transgressed in a pernicious rather than productive way?  Will capitalism exhaust itself, or must it be pushed over the edge?  And who will push it?  Even if it will exhaust itself, what sort of social structures must we preparatively engineer if we are to capitalise on this exhaustion?

Despite the undeniably sharp edge of their critical diagnosis of capitalism and the originality of their synthesis of concepts from a myriad of fields, I’m doubtful as to whether Deleuze and Guattari can offer us satisfying answers to these latter questions, or at least, whether they can offer more satisfying answers than more traditionalist modes of radical left theory and practice.  A reappraisal of Marx’s economic insights and a politics of refusal and of taking and holding spaces (physical, social, virtual, conceptual) seem to me to be more likely avenues down which to seek a positive political future than the creative fluidity and openness of a ubiquitous sexuality.

5 responses to “Deleuze and Guattari’s ambiguous relationship to neoliberalism

  1. i tend to think you’re wrong about both the reduction of D&G’s philosophy to a dualism and the inability of their conceptual apparatus to grasp the contemporary moment. Phrases like “despite the nuances…” etc. are deceptive. D&G’s analysis of capitalism, its relationship to different social and state forms, and so on is where the brilliance of their analysis stands out! Nonetheless, this is a blog post, and your point is elsewhere….

    As far as their relationship to the problematic of neoliberalism: I feel that the control society piece and, especially, the last few pages of ‘apparatus of capture’ are quite prescient for their time. But even beyond their analysis, there is much being done with D&G to analyze neoliberalism today! See for example Brian Massumi’s excellent piece “National Enterprise Emergency” in theory, culture, society; or many of the contributions to the New Formations theme issue on Deleuze & Politics.

    Yes, of course D&G cannot give you specific answers to the questions you ask…if any of us had the answers, we wouldn’t be asking them. Their answer to how we get there would of course be “experiment!”, and whether that is a satisfactory political agenda might be debatable….but then again, there are no ‘tried & true’ methods for ending capitalism……..

    • Dave J. Allen

      Thanks for your comment.

      No doubt you’re right that I’m not being fair to Deleuze and Guattari in this piece – I find that despite how powerful and productive I find their work I always seem to end up criticising it when I come to write about it, for reasons unbeknown to me… I would say though that I did note the diagnostic and analytical strength of their work as its main significance for the critique of capitalism, and what you’ve said doesn’t seem to dispute that. I think they provide us with a great many extremely important conceptual tools for understanding the functioning of contemporary capitalism, and that their work is only becoming more and more relevant and prescient in this regard.

      I of course don’t expect specific answers to the general questions I raise towards the end of the post. I don’t really think it is the role of theory to provide those answers. Answers – if any are to be had with sufficient clarity to be worth stating – will emerge from a more dynamic interaction between theory and activity, and perhaps will only emerge retrospectively… My worry is that the general spirit of their response (which I think you rightly sum up as ‘experiment!’) isn’t the sort of approach we need. I think there is a place for it – after all, creativity and lateral thinking in activistic strategies is a powerful thing – but as a sort of post-Nietzschean ‘categorical imperative’ or as a whole political project in itself I fear it is too easily re-appropriated by the control mechanisms of contemporary capitalism, especially consumerism and New Age cults of experience which are ultimately depoliticising.

      So, to summarise:

      (1) I agree that my portrayal of Deleuze and Guattari as dualistic is oversimplifying, as I highlighted in the post itself, although especially in the case of Anti-Oedipus I don’t think it is distortingly oversimple;
      (2) I don’t think that Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual apparatus is unable to grasp the contemporary moment – on the contrary, it is an extremely powerful diagnostic tool, especially when its strong connections to Marx are brought to the fore; however
      (3) I don’t think that this vivid comprehension of the contemporary moment translates very obviously or easily into a conception of the general direction or spirit of positive action against the contemporary moment, insofar as Deleuze and Guattari’s imperative to experiment with ‘what a body can do’ seems to me to have lost its initial subversive force within the contemporary ideological situation.

      I hope that clarifies my position a little and renders it a bit more sympathetic, as I’m essentially in agreement with the points you make. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Thanks for this post. Very inspiring for me as I am just starting with Deleuze and Guattari. This helps me to formulate some of my doubts regarding their work (rather hunches than arguments). kb’s comment and your clarification is also very good. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Deleuze, Assemblages and Desire: Introductory Dialogue | Ideas and Education

  4. This is an old post but I just came across it researching this very topic. Very interesting stuff. I think there’s much too much deference and hagiography surrounding these sorts of things. People are far too quick to rush to defend the Grand Masters. Worse, they forget the most important lessons of these masters. Perhaps when these books were written *four decades ago* they were untimely in the Nietzschean sense. However, no amount of radical political intent means that they have stayed untimely (or possibly could have). In fact they have become extremely timely. Radicalism is no more timeless than truth. Perhaps once upon a time they were radical but times change (and books don’t very much). I think that they are, from a present viewpoint, massively compromised by the last forty years of history.

    That doesn’t mean that their ideas are without value, of course, but it does establish a completely different problematic to be addressed. It always amazes me how uncritical self-declared ‘critical theorists’ can be. The parallels between D&G and the likes of Hayek are astonishing. The usual defence of D&G against the neoliberal accusation is to say that neoliberals want to do away with the state but D&G understand that the state is required to enforce the oppressive reterritorialisations without which capitalism would implode. The thing is that *this is exactly what Hayek, Friedman and the rest say too*. They only try to dismantle the *welfare* state, the social democratic state. They advocate a strong disciplinary state to provide security, protect property, pacify the population and propagate neoliberal ideology. It’s true they would ideally like to do away with the state altogether (‘in an ideal world’) but they recognise it to be a pragmatic necessity in fact.

    D&G despise capitalism and all its oppressions and Hayek et al. think that it’s great. Other than that they’re all peas in a pod.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that we must reject D&G as ideologically compromised or tainted so as to pursue some other, purer kind of theory. (Why should we let the right claim all the best ideas without a fight?) No, this relationship doesn’t mean that we must scuttle the ship of D&G, however we really need to get over this hero worshipping deferentialism that assumes that because something was politically radical the better part of half a century ago then it still is now. The neoliberal right are far more dynamic and pragmatic than this. That’s what I find so laughable about the academic left’s claims to embrace process, dynamism and openness against the conservative oppressiveness of the right. That opposition itself is decades out of date. The right is now revolutionary and pragmatic. The left, the academic left at least, is still fighting the battles of about ten wars ago. It’s pitiful.

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