Microfascism

The Mantle is excited to present the first in series of blog posts by Cæmeron Crain exploring key concepts in contemporary political philosophy, beginning with the work of the seminal French theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 

Long after the appearance of Deleuze and Guattari's collaborative works Anti-Oedipus (1972), and A Thousand Plateaus (1980, together volumes one and two of Capitalism and Schizophrenia), the influence of the notoriously difficult philosophers, clinical psychotherapists, and activists is, paradoxically, widespread. Academics, graphic designers, currency traders, social media managers, security consultants, and political radicals have all have appropriated the language of multiplicities, flows, arrangements, rhizomes. This is because, as Michel Foucault claimed in his preface to Anti-Oedipus, these "seemingly abstract notions" address the question of how to proceed in an increasingly complex world. But as the above list of often antagonistic disciplines suggests, the answer to the question of how to proceed is unresolved, as is the question of whether embedded somewhere in Capitalism and Schizophrenia is a positive political program.

Our goal in this series is not to provide answers to these questions, but to put in context a lexicon that has been put to work forwarding disparate agendas, and which still exerts tremendous influence on cutting-edge thought around the world. We hope that by elucidating important concepts in this important work, and by spotlighting these remarkable thinkers and practitioners, we will provide our readers with essential knowledge as we all work to determine our "how" in this world. 

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Gilles Deleuze and Felix GuattariGilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Perhaps the whole key to understanding what Deleuze and Guattari (hereafter D&G) are up to in their books on Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus) lies in their insistence that Desire is the key economic concept. Nowadays, the term "Economy" on its own seems to refer to the financial economy, even if this is ill-defined (is “the economy” bad when the DOW goes down, or when unemployment is high, or does it have to do with GDP, or what?). We should note, first of all, that the term is broader than that. In the original Greek, "eco" means household, or habitat, or—to use a Deleuzean term—milieu, and "nomos" has to do with the law/rule/principle determining this domain. Economy is not strictly tied to money, and any college student should know that we can talk also about issues of political economy. Likewise, anyone who has dabbled in psychoanalysis or the like knows we can also talk about psychic economy. These latter senses are more important for D&G than the directly fiduciary. Indeed, they seem to suggest that the distribution of resources in terms of Capitalism is but one permutation of an underlying economy of desire, where this notion of desire is simultaneously both political and psychological.

According to D&G, desire is fundamentally productive; it does not depend upon some prior lack, but rather invests a social field. This means that the object of desire is not wanted on its own, as though everything else were given. Desire involves a context—a milieu—desire even structures that milieu. I do not simply want an iPhone; I want to be seen and known as a guy with an iPhone. There is a certain fantasy structure at play of which this object forms a part. This fantasy structure is already social in nature. Indeed, D&G conceive of the self as a multiplicity of what they call "desiring-machines." The question is not so much what these desiring-machines are in themselves as it is how they operate and what they produce. There is no Cartesian subject standing apart from the world on this account. One’s sense of personal identity is itself a product of desire related to a broader social structure. At its (perhaps implicit) limit, my desire relates to all of history and how I perceive my place in it.

What desire produces, though, is not so much objects, but rules. What I want ends up structuring my behavior. The desire for an iPhone produces new norms of behavior: taking pictures of dinner at a restaurant, or checking my email during it. By and large this may be unconscious, but it happens nonetheless. As human beings, we have not just habits, but the habit of forming habits. We tend to go along in the same way. These habits form implicit rules governing our behavior—I put the left sock on, then the right. There is no good reason I can think of for this, but it does strike me as the correct way of proceeding. This is perhaps not very interesting, but what of the rules I follow when it comes to dealing with others? Is there a real difference between my tiny personal affairs and my politics?

D&G’s radical answer here is: no. Not really. While it is hard to see any political significance to my left-sock-first rule, this is only because it doesn’t seem to affect anyone else. It still says something (I don’t know what—certainly it would be too much of a leap to say it indicates that I am a Leftist) about the way my desire is investing itself in “the world.” This is the idea of Micropolitics; there is ultimately nothing that is not political, because desire is always embedded to a broader social field.

The upshot of this is that what happens politically at the macro-level has roots in our psychic affairs and small interpersonal dealings with one another. If the macropolitical structure has become repressive, we should look at how it is pulling from and organizing desire. One of the driving questions of Anti-Oedipus is: what makes us desire Fascism? We should note the implication of the very question. We (read: human beings under certain conditions) want fascism. Fascism only happens because we want it. So the question is: why?

D&G’s answer relies heavily on the notion of Microfascism, which is related to the micropolitics mentioned above. It’s related to the way desire produces rules. For instance, when I ride the subway, I follow a rule that tells me to take my MetroCard out before I get to the turnstile. Or, to take another example, I try to walk on the right-hand side of the stairs. But, frequently, I find myself behind someone who doesn’t take their subway card out beforehand, or who meanders around the stairs like it doesn’t matter. In response I think: they should follow the rules!—this is microfascism. It’s fundamentally the desire for the trains to run on time. But, notice, what I want here is for others to follow my rule. Maybe I even have reasons for this—it’s a good rule, after all!—but, regardless, this amounts to imposing my desire on others. Write this large and you get Mussolini or Franco or whatever.

It is important to note that the distinction between the micro and macro levels of the political is not reducible to the ordinary distinction between public and private. D&G reject the latter insofar as it implies a domain of life (i.e., the private) that is not social. This does not mean, however, that the levels look the same. We perhaps all have our microfascisms, but these are diverse. They enable state fascism, but this aims for homogeneity.

If we in some sense want fascism, is there also a way in which we want capitalism? I think the answer here is more complex, because capitalism is intrinsically self-revolutionizing. Capitalism undermines established forms in order to replace them with something new. In D&G’s language, it is always de-territorializing desire and re-territorializing it somewhere else. Certainly, it can become fascistic, but at its core, what capitalism does is unlock the unfettered power of desire. All previous social arrangements, Deleuze will say, attempted to keep this under wraps. It may be helpful here to think of marriage arrangements in feudal societies. Strong codes structured (sexual) desire, making marriage more a matter creating affiliations between bloodlines than anything else. Love may have been possible outside of these codes, but it was certainly not encouraged. Love is a messy, disruptive desire; the kind of desire capitalism feeds on. Perhaps this is why we now tend to think marriage is about love. In another register, it would be an explanation of the capitalistic values of innovation and entrepreneurship.

So, perhaps the link between desire and capitalism is deeper than that between desire and fascism. Fascism would seem to be, importantly, a response to capitalism: it involves an attempt to impose order on the chaos of desire. This is what makes it reactionary, and dangerous. Fascism’s drive toward homogeneity is ultimately suicidal. We are all (only) the same in death. But this is only one of the dangers that capitalism encounters. What sense does it make, after all, to pair capitalism and schizophrenia?

To answer this question we must go back to the thought that desire is the central economic concept. We need to ask not only about the rules (nomoi) it creates, but also about its “household” (eco). D&G articulate the logic of capitalism in terms of de-territorialization/re-territorialization, and suggest that the same logic has something to do with schizophrenia. To get at this, however, we must first consider the meaning of Territory. This will be the subject of a future post.

Cæmeron Crain is pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and teaches as an adjunct lecturer in New York City. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy, as well as a B.A. in Communications, from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.