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.