Fluid capitalism is a seductive rhetoric in need of being troubled

Photo by: Randy Stewart

Fluid capitalism’s mantra is “go with the flow.” The task of critical thinking today is to examine this statement as a command instead of a mantra. 

The first self-help book I read as a teenager was called Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. It was one of the first books that blended popular psychology with optimism hacks, what would become a thematic hallmark of the self-help genre from the ‘90s onward. The thesis of the book was that we are at our best when we experience a “flow state,” an experience of engagement in the world that is difficult enough to engage us without anxiety but not so easy as to make us bored. It’s a state where one loses track of the regular passage of time — think of the proverbial “time flies when you’re having fun” — as well as developing an almost kinesthetic sense with the surrounding space and the objects in it. This results in a kind of ecstasy. 

What this book revealed was a rather romantic, active and highly idealized picture of how the flow state is grasped and facilitated. However, it’s important to historicize the development of flow-state ideology as many offshoots of it have become pervasive in the theorizing and praxis of capitalist-adjacent institutions in the last 20 years. These would be precisely in-line with what communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek sardonically calls “Western Buddhism.” In the linked video, Žižek makes a joke that expresses a deep truth about what I mean by fluid capitalism: 

“This vaguely hedonist injunction, which incidentally is also the reason, I think, why somebody like Dalai Lama is so popular. You should read his books… He always makes this weird statement which is, I quote, ‘the purpose of life is to be happy.’ My God!—my reaction is: hasn’t this guy heard of Freud and so on.” 

Žižek strikes an important nerve here: central to the Freudian edifice is a rejection of infantile desire which inaugurates what he calls the “reality principle,” which is basically the lesson of the marshmallow test. The reality principle is something that advertising, the endless drip feeding of content on the internet ranging from pornography to violence, and the ontology of the shopping mall — one of a sterile timelessness that coaxes subjects into a consumptive stupor — all together encourage individuals to forgo. 

A lineage of the ideas surrounding fluidity can be traced from the ideologies of our ancient past to the relatively recent theoreticians that center both the concept of fluidity and capitalism. 

Daoism, one of China’s three popular religions, is a religion that valorizes infantile pleasure of the maternal presence. The religion’s seminal text, the Daodejing, often describes this maternal realm of being, called the Way, using metaphors of natural water; things like rivers, oceans, reservoirs, streams etc.—basically nature’s patent fluid structures that express an overarching metaphysics of fluidity. Is it a coincidence then, that Freud’s description of the libido, how it builds pressure and releases, gets cathected to and displaced onto objects, is expressed in hydraulic metaphors throughout his work? This is the dimension that fluid capitalism is tapping into to make us consumers who feel as if we are simply following the nature of reality in pursuing desire for desire’s sake, but of course this injunction fits a certain logic that’s coextensive to a service-based economy. 

The main theorists of fluid capitalism in the last century were undoubtedly psychoanalyst Felix Guattari and philosopher Gilles Deleuze whose collaborative work Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia was groundbreaking in French society in the ‘70s. These authors argue that capitalism has brought us to the point of being a Control Society which forces us to participate in flows of intensities, floodgates of desire as it were, that open and close based on material positions outside of one’s control. This is in contradistinction to the Foucauldian Disciplinary Society which limits time and space through the authoritative gaze or figurehead. A good example of what Deleuze and Guattari are theorizing in Anti-Oedipus today is the way infinite scroll on social media uses an opt out, rather than an opt in model. A model where users enter an endless flow of content that is monitored and curated to introduce the user to yet more flows of content which in turn influence their behaviors, desires, beliefs and attitudes. 

On the less densely theoretical end of the rhetoric on fluid capitalism are more establishment-type thinkers who preach a kind of pseudo-optimism with a pastiche orientalist spirituality—essentially Žižek’s Western Buddhism. This mode of thinking can be spotted especially in phenomena such as green capitalism. Thinkers of this ilk tend to believe that if the wealthy would just be more compassionate and moral about spending their wealth, society can curb neoliberalism’s structural production of inequality. 

Over a year ago, Marxist economist Richard Wolff debated Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks on capitalism versus socialism. Brooks is a best selling psychologist who is exactly the type of popular theoretician who believes in a trickledown capitalist ethics. At a certain point in the debate (59:10), Brooks says the following:

“Neither Richard’s vision nor mine is ever really going to pass in an unmitigated way without problems… We have to get away from this Manichean thinking about our goal-making process in the economic systems… I mean Manicheaism was an actual religion that said that it’s gonna be all black or all white, all good or all bad. On the contrary. Let’s set our sails in a particular direction and do the best that we can… Let’s keep fighting for this better future together… That journey that progress, per se, is a great moral good.” 

Brooks’ rhetorical strategy is presenting a seemingly impenetrable ideological pluralism rather than any hard-line binarism as the reason why any ideal vision of the future of our economy necessarily falls short. He claims it has to “sail” in an oceanic plurality of economic aspirations that will inevitably swallow any individual project up. That’s okay though, because doing “the best that we can,” the journey itself — similar to Csikzentmihalyi’s flow state which is about being immersed in the ecstasy of the journey not the destination, he actually uses this exact metaphor in Flow — is also a moral good. Again, is it a coincidence the metaphors used by Brooks to naturalize capital’s political hegemony are closely tied to fluids? 

Fluid capitalism is a discourse in deep need of being troubled. It is the product of a Western service economy that has outsourced primary and secondary industry to poorer countries around the globe. It presents this configuration as natural and itself as an all together un-ideological rhetoric. In popular forms it is optimistic and vaguely spiritual, worrying about hacking individual psychologies while obfuscating their relations to historical and material circumstances. In terms of high theory it is presented as revolutionary, as in the case of Deleuze and Guattari, both of whom believed that capitalism’s deterritorialization should be accelerated in order to heat up to a point where the whole economic order will implode. 

Even on the gender front, Judith Butler’s concept of gender fluidity has proven to be less recalcitrant to capital than it is, in fact, complementary, as Butler’s approval of Jaden Smith’s iconic non-binary influence in luxury fashion demonstrated. 

The only way to defeat fluid capitalist rhetoric is through a steady yet tenacious concentration towards building a broad, cross-national working class coalition. A coalition that demands from its leaders things like climate justice and a massive overhaul of our economic system so as to become more equitable. 

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