Saturday, July 31, 2010


For no particular reason, I thought I would take another stab at explaining the title of the blog.  The quote at the top actually comes from A Thousand Plateaus, a seminal bit of post-structuralism penned back in 1980 by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Italian psychoanalyst Felix Guattarri.  In an effort to dramatically boil this down, I would claim the thesis of their book is that the world is created by the intersection of forces of stasis and forces of change.  See, I told you I could simplify it; it's just like Star Wars.  They even give these forces names, almost like you would mythological characters (kinda like Freud and the Oedipal complex, now that I think about it) -- the force of stasis is called the State Apparatus, and the force of change is called the War Machine.  In general, these forces work at odds to one another, but they can also interbreed and combine in strange ways, and the Capitalist Axiomatic is the half-breed offspring of the two. 

It's hard to write something like this in any sane amount of space without falling into what feels like intellectual parody, but I will nevertheless forge ahead.

The State Apparatus is an apparatus of capture.  The State is basically a parasite in this theory.  In and of itself it doesn't produce anything.  It is not creative.  It takes existing mechanisms (of production, of language, of culture -- the idea is not mainly economic) each with its own codes and conditions and coordinates and over-codes them.  In other words the state apparatus is a force of unification, organization, systematization, and homogenization.  It marks off a territory, puts a fence up, and starts collecting taxes. 

In the book, they base part of this theory around the way the earliest states, like Sumer and Ur, actually functioned, but you don't need to buy the anthropology to get the idea.  Every system that's going to stick around has to come up with some sort of mechanism of stabilization that serves as its foundation and lingua franca.  The important thing to realize is that this foundation is not generative, not creative.  The state apparatus doesn't build it.  It's not the seed or the root of anything.  All the production is already occurring.  It just comes along later and brands the whole works and appropriates a slice.  The State Apparatus sets out limits, closes things off, and divides up the results.  Middle management in short.

This is a very different view of the state (and of organization more generally) than some are used to.  We're often brainwashed into thinking that organization is somehow more central than the forces it organizes.  As if the state itself created the organization, instead of merely coordinating already existing forces.  This is perhaps why we think that leaders have such an exaggerated importance, rather than understanding that they are more fundamentally an effect than a cause.  This is not to say that the state doesn't have a real existence and real effects.  The state is perfectly real, it's just a reactive and derived reality that has to do with maintaining a form and an equilibrium that came from somewhere else.

What's really creative is the War Machine.  The basic principle of the war machine is that it accepts no limits.  It is a force of change and mutation that will attempt to overrun every fence you put up.  The war machine has no purpose other than indefinite expansion.  It's not looking to conquer territory, which is only of concern to the state.  It doesn't have any sense of self-preservation or equilibrium.  It simply refuses to be contained; it is that element of chaos in any system that falls outside of control, and hence is the fountain of all novelty and change. 

In the book they link this to the relation of nomadic tribes to the early states.  Again, the point isn't crucial, except insofar as it helps to understand that the real object of the war machine isn't war in our modern sense.  The real object is simply to preserve the openness of a system and to avoid being captured and forced into settling down.  Instead of first marking off a territory and then filling it up, the war machine goes out and populates the little desert oases as it finds them, following the lay of the land without imposing an external order on it.  The war machine represents the system destroying barbarians at the gate.

This may be starting to sound sort of obvious -- sure, things break down, people and species and systems die off --  so I just want to pause for a moment to emphasize how odd it actually is.  Something fundamental happens when you try to think about the necessity of what, from the point of view of the stable forms trying to maintain themselves, are accidents.  Necessary accidents; failures and innovations that somehow have to be part of your theory instead of relegated to special exceptions.  Through this you bring chance into the world as a real active force, rather than just something that comes from beyond and fucks your shit up.  You give possibility a deep reality.  I can't think of a more profound philosophical stance, and this is what draws me to Deleuze in general (a lot of his more academic work is devoted to sorting out what kind of reality we could attribute to possibility, following the line of suggestions made by those few philosophers who share this tendency -- Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Whitehead).  It may sound like a simple inversion, but to look at the world and see the flow between the forms as more active, more creative, and maybe even more real is to see a whole new world.  Chance reigns supreme and the rest is just bureaucracy.


Given the opposition of the state apparatus and the war machine, you would think that these forces were forever irreconcilable.  But part of the beauty of Deleuze's thinking is the way that he very clearly lays out oppositions to make a conceptual point, and then goes on to show how they inevitably combine to in very complicated ways to make the real world.  In this case we pass from the pure cases of Sumer and the Huns respectively, to a much more mixed modern situation.  The idea is that somewhere along the way, the State came up with the bright idea to capture the War Machine.  Capture is the defining action of the state after all, and the war machine was a constant threat. 

So in our little mythico-historical drama here, the modern European states represent the partial success of the State Apparatus in capturing the War Machine and incorporating it into its system.  Hence the wars fought over territory in the 17th through 19th century, which differ dramatically from than the sacking that brought down Rome and even the Crusades (a form of religious war machine).  Napoleon and his idea that the entire state should be mobilized for absolute territorial war is the pinnacle of this movement.  The war machine becomes the preferred tool with which the state captures.  And you can tell it's the state behind these wars if you ask "what do you do after you capture"?  The answer is basically nothing -- you don't change anything, you mostly let them go on like they were, and impose enough control to tax them.  The parasite is only looking to expand the host.  Or as Clausewitz put it, war is just politics by other means.

The story doesn't end there though, because its not that easy to keep the war machine penned up (which is really impossible, by definition), so capturing it is fraught with peril.  From the Napoleonic state employing a pet war machine, it's only a short jump to Hitler's war machine getting the upper hand and using the state for the purposes of pure destruction.  Hitler was no parasite.  He wasn't interested in the tax base.  He wasn't interested in capture.  He was just going to wipe everyone out.  One of the truly remarkable things I've discovered in the little reading I've done about the psychology of Nazi Germany is how all that precise organization was consciously directed at destruction as its unique goal (Goebbels said some profoundly fucked up shit to those who were listening, though this may take the cake: "In the world of absolute fatality in which Hitler moves, nothing has meaning any longer, neither good nor bad, time nor space, and what other people call success cannot be used as a criterion ... Hitler will probably end in catastrophe").

What does all this have to do with capitalism?

Stay tuned for next week's exciting conclusion!

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