Hope for a Radical Change: Caroline Alphin on Neoliberalism and Cyberpunk

A year ago, I discovered Mark Fisher and his book Capitalist Realism. Fisher reads Neuromancer’scyberspace as capitalism’s new playground, describing cyberspatial capital’s ability to addict its users, wiring them “into the circuits of a hypermediated consumer culture” (25). The all-consuming world of Cyberspace and the consuming cyberpunks that navigate it are the outcome of a totalizing capitalist society that makes consumers of us all. Yes, capital makes all things fungible--everything becomes a product--and capitalism simultaneously makes it easier for everything to exist as a product. Even social relations (the people that make up society) is a continually reproduced product serving the capitalist system.

A 21st-century ripple in capitalism is that its processes have begun to accelerate for the purposes of generating more wealth for the owner class. Imagine what accelerated coal mining and logging of the forests will do to our environment. Imagine what accelerated production of war will do to the people living in non-first-world nations. By doing everything that capitalism has done faster, fortunes will surely inflate. But, just possibly, the endpoint of capitalism may sooner appear.

But just what is capitalism’s endpoint? Is capitalism another Hegelian zeitgeist spiriting us toward some social Belle Époque? Is there an outside to capitalism? In Mark Fisher’s terms, will our Post-Capitalist Desire ever be slaked? And if there is a wholly new iteration of the econo-political order on the horizon, is it fraught with the same old apex predators, red in tooth and claw? These questions were calling out for answers. So, to start the conversation, I talked to Caroline Alphin, political science professor at Virginia Tech and author of Neoliberalism and Cyberpunk Science Fiction.

- Joseph Hurtgen

You discuss accelerationism in your book, a radical social change resulting from accelerating capitalism or its processes. What are some important science fictions that exemplify this move, and can such acceleration take place outside the pages of SF?

There is a form of accelerationism that tries to offer an alternative to the failures of leftist politics to bring an end to capitalism. At its basic level, this kind of accelerationism argues that to move beyond capitalism we must push through it. Pushing through would mean no regulations; it would mean that we intensify the production of capital and fully embrace real subsumption. The point for accelerationism is that in realizing a pure capitalism, in pushing it to its extreme, we can exhaust it and move beyond capitalism. But what I suggest we actually get in the context of neoliberalism is a kind of accelerationism that wants to speed up capitalism so that life is ordered around competition: a kind of competition for competition’s sake. This kind of neoliberal accelerationism is a nightmarish intensification of capitalist relations as they currently exist. I use “nightmarish” here because the goal is to accelerate the reduction of life to a game between inequalities. In other words, life is understood as a zero-sum game of competition. Individuals must live dangerously, they must live intensely, and they must live with risk, all the while remaining “resilient” in the face of the social and environmental degradations of neoliberalism and information capitalism.

I write about cyberpunk, in part, because I see it as a cultural and political force and an affective force that does the work of neoliberalism and its accelerationism. That is, I see cyberpunk, not just as art that represents, that reflects on, or that critiques capitalism or neoliberalism. Cyberpunk gives us visual and literary representations of the future consequences of pushing capitalism to its extreme, including human integrations with information technology, living dangerously in a poisoned environment, deterritorialized states governed by corporations, and an urban life governed by the logic of Social Darwinism. Rather, I treat cyberpunk as a productive force, as art that perpetuates the conditions of neoliberalism. Even when it critiques neoliberalism, it still propagates notions of individualism and resilience that make neoliberalism possible. Even when cyberpunk problematizes the conditions of information capitalism and the consequences of accelerationism, it furthers the reality building project of neoliberalism by making pure competition seem sexy and cool. Cyberpunk is productive in its ambivalence.

I consider cyberpunk as a kind of accelerationist art in the sense that it intensifies our current capitalist relations and for some individuals offers hope in the face of hitting rock bottom. This cathartic release or sense of relief can push individuals to see neoliberalism and information capitalism from the outside and perhaps even to see beyond capitalism. But I am skeptical of the kind of hope that cyberpunk offers because it encourages individuals to remain resilient. Resilience serves the ends of neoliberalism, encouraging individuals to remain strong, to live the most intense lives, and to survive and endure the harsh realities of an accelerated capitalism. Cyberpunk does more than confirm systemic problems or theoretical diagnoses of postmodern conditions. Cyberpunk actively produces and participates in neoliberal and accelerative governmentalities by normalizing individualized risk assumption and responsibility, resilience, competition for competition’s sake, living intensely, and self-maximization.

We see the consequences of neoliberal accelerationism in the environmental disasters and extreme weather conditions that have intensified and will continue to intensify. We see it in the economization of the social, where all aspects of life are understood in terms of economic logic. We see it in the necrotic conditions that people must endure and want to endure as resilient individuals. These necrotic conditions include living with endemic illnesses in a system that expects individuals to care for themselves and that considers these endemic illnesses as signs of personal failure. We see it in movements like neoreactionism that understands democracy as a disease and that desires an authoritative corporate fiefdom instead. Neoliberalism, like neoreactionism, is a form of accelerationism. Both desire an acceleration to a time and space where competition is unfettered, the weak are allowed to weed themselves out, and the strong are no longer beholden to the other. This is not a leftist accelerationism. It does not wish to move beyond capitalism. The kind of accelerationism dominant within neoliberalism desires an intensification of capitalist relations and it is okay with disasters since they induce innovation and weed out the weak.

Can you speak to the acceleration of capitalism as moving individuals from mere consumers to turning them into the product? You see this in cyberpunk fiction, like Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon, where Takeshi Kovacs is "resleeved" into bodies he is unfamiliar (he's no longer himself!), employed for various para-military/security/investigative purposes. And we could go back further to William Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, a data mule that loses his own identity as he moves corporate information. Johnny doesn't consume the information he stores, he's the product!

I write about the ways that an accelerated capitalism subsumes social relations, really all facets of life, within capitalist relations. But I examine this transformation of social relations through the lens of Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism in “The Birth of Biopolitics.” Foucault’s diagnosis of the conditions of neoliberalism, especially when he thinks about the economization of the social, human capital, and homo economicus, speaks to thinking about the human as a product. As a reality building project, neoliberalism intensifies capitalist relations to the point that there is no outside of the production of capital, there is no time but labor time, and there is no subject beyond homo economicus. Homo economicus lives as an enterprise of the self. This means that individuals live as atomized business units who must accrue more human capital to sell themselves in a world that is essentially a series of marketized spaces.

Cyberpunk gives us representations of homo economicus, of the human product. For example, in Neuromancer, Case loses human capital when his ability to jack into the matrix is damaged. Case enters what Gibson characterizes as a “terminal overdrive” to regain human capital and avoid sinking without a trace. Just in the first month of his year of “terminal overdrive,” Case murders two men and one woman to remain competitive as an individual business unit. Competition is largely about the ability to sell the self. In the violent, fast-paced, highly competitive world of cyberpunk, individuals have an endless need for self-maximization. Insecurity, intensity, and competition are the order of the day in these neoliberal and accelerationist conditions. Neoliberalism and its governmentalities induce foresight, prudence, responsibility, resilience, and other “virtues” necessary for enduring, surviving, and succeeding in the marketized spaces of an accelerated capitalism by operating through a fundamental insecurity. In other words, underlying neoliberalism is the assumption that life is fundamentally insecure. Living as an atomized business unit means that individuals must strive for an impossible balance between living intensely, perhaps even living recklessly, and remaining prudent.

And, selling the self--making oneself a viable part of the machine of capital--includes modes of self regulation like your discussion of Fitbit users in your book. But self-regulation by tracking various successes, whether the success of exercise or the success of work or creative endeavors or even relaxing aren't always beneficial are they? As you gesture toward, some success might stem from a certain level of recklessness, like YouTube personalities that drink themselves in a stupor for increased views. The pressure of capital motivates, then, in positive and negative directions. But is this really just a question of power rather than capital? Haven't various forms of power also produced an array of motivations--from positive to negative--on individuals? I think here of Zamyatin's We or Orwell's 1984.

If by positive and negative you mean productive and restrictive, then “yes” I think about power as both a productive internal force and as a restrictive external force. Although I focus more on the ways that power is productive. I write and think about a kind of power that emerged out of the co-development of liberalism and capitalism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Liberalism set out to build a small state around free and responsible individuals who would spend their lives competing, thinking, and acting freely in free-market spaces. Capitalism made demands for a productive and reliable labor force. Together liberalism and capitalism required a population of individuals that could govern themselves. This power, what Foucault at times calls biopower, is productive because it becomes part of the lifeblood of individuals as they act and work on themselves. This power is capillary as it flows through and is made possible by the everyday practices of the self, like self-monitoring, biohacking, and self-maximization.

Not only has neoliberalism and information capitalism intensified the kind of individualism, labor time, and smart power that emerged out of the co-development of liberalism and capitalism, but real subsumption is also fully realized. So, to answer your question about whether it is a matter of power rather than capital, I would point to what it means to take real subsumption seriously. If we accept that all facets of life now serve the ends of capitalist relations, then it is a question of how power is informed by or shaped by the logic of capital. We need not think about one at the expense of the other. I am not sure that words like success, benefit, positive, or negative are especially useful when applied to self-regulation, self-monitoring, biohacking, and self-maximization. At least not in the sense that forms of self-regulation or self-monitoring like exercise (a positive success) are beneficial, whereas forms of recklessness (a negative success) are harmful. Rather, my point is that there is no outside of capitalist relations. This means that self-regulation, self-monitoring, and biohacking are all forms of self-maximization. The purpose of which is to increase human capital (that which enhances our competitive edge) to remain competitive as individual business units and to further the production of capital. When people exercise as a form of self-regulation or self-monitoring, I do not see this as a benefit or as self-cultivation. Self-cultivation aims toward caring for the self as an end in itself. But, under real-subsumption, self-cultivation is no longer possible as it is now an instrument of capital. The facts that exercise lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, that more sleep reduces stress and other physiological ailments, and that biohacking allows for creative and individual expression are beside the point because these “benefits” are not the goal of self-regulation, self-monitoring, or of self-maximization. Exercise, sleep, and self-monitoring are functions of capital.

Don't some deterritorialized spaces like the Maunsell Forts that have been used for pirate radio broadcasting and other activities exist outside of the forces of either liberalism or neoliberalism? Are these kinds of deterritorialized spaces a vision of a post-capitalist future?

I am skeptical about whether a space exists outside of liberalism or neoliberalism because it is deterritorialized, since these spaces are recoded and reterritorialized, albeit temporarily, by liberal and neoliberal subjects. The forces of liberalism and neoliberalism are not simply the state and its agents. A hegemonic system like liberalism or neoliberalism exceeds the state. These systems are made real by a subject that lives and thinks in particular ways. The kind of individualism motivated to produce pirate radio stations aligns nicely with liberal and neoliberal subjects and is even a product of these hegemonic systems. Liberalism and neoliberalism require a kind of individual that is autonomous, agentic, creative, and self-interested. This kind of individual often accepts that risk makes life interesting, and this kind of individual is anti-authoritarian. That they would buck the system, dodging regulations by broadcasting on an abandoned sea fort is not surprising. Many of the individuals that produced these stations were entrepreneurs in the music business. More recent DJs pay to play music. This reminds me of the flexible work that has become popular under neoliberalism. Like pirate radio DJs, flexible workers have the freedom to move from place to place in search of the work they desire. And, as free-thinking, liberty seeking, creative, and resilient individuals they are supposed to thrive in insecure and intense working conditions. It is these insecure working conditions that bring out their best and allow for freedom.

Deleuze comments on the recuperative power of capitalism. In a seminar on Anti-Oedipus I, he states that each time something seems to have escaped capitalism, it is reabsorbed. Capitalism is exceptionally good at absorbing dangerous or resistant things or forces. Thus, I am skeptical when it comes to visions of a post-capitalist future. This does not mean that I am a capitalist realist, that I do not think there is anything beyond capitalism. But I am hesitant to look for post-capitalist futures in the familiar.

So, walking away from Omelas isn't an option after all?

If I take your reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to mean that what I have been suggesting is that we cannot escape (walk away from) capitalism, then I would say “yes,” as long as capitalism is our current reality, I do not think we can walk away. But I am not a capitalist realist. This means that I do not accept that there is nothing beyond capitalism. There could be something beyond capitalism. I do not offer an alternative, and I am skeptical of post-capitalist alternatives, but I hope for radical change.

What direction do you see your research heading now? Will you continue to write about issues engaging neo-liberalism and cyberpunk?

I am working on a project that looks at the biopolitics of competition and suggests that this biopolitics is a condition of neoliberalism and of capitalist relations. I want to push neoliberalism and accelerationism to their extremes. At their theoretical and material ends, there is a biopolitics of competition that understands the purpose of life is a game between inequalities. This project looks at neoreactionism to, in part, consider the ways that a neoliberal accelerationism reverses the leftist accelerative critique of capitalism. Instead of turning a critical eye toward the degradation of capitalism, the accelerationism of neoreactionaries, and I think neoliberalism as well, is highly critical of democracy and liberalism. But critical of democracy and liberalism in problematic ways. Neoreactionism understands democracy as a degenerative and parasitic force that allows the weak to keep stronger individuals from fulfilling their potential. Part of the aim of this project is to highlight the horrors of our reality and to produce, perhaps even provoke, a sense of revulsion toward the kind of individual, competition, and self-cultivation made possible by hegemonic systems like neoliberalism and information capitalism. But the goal of this revulsion or provocation is not to feel safe in the fact that we are at least not so bad as neoreactionaries; rather, I turn to the subterranean (often racist, sexist, and anti-human) recesses of neoliberalism and information capitalism to provoke feelings of discomfort/anguish at the prospect of remaining within capitalism, since doing so requires that we, like neoreactionaries, participate in a zero-sum game where some individuals must suffer and die for others to succeed.

A related project that I am working on looks at a specific kind of biohacking: hacking the gut. I want to look at how mental optimization and neuro-enhancement are made possible in part by the processes of the gut and the trillions of bacteria that exist within this microecological system. I suggest that the complex and messy interrelationships between the gut microbiome, biohacking, and biopolitics, point to a key technology of power of neoliberalism and information capitalism, which I argue is hacking our gut microbiome. Hacking the gut is what Byung-Chul Han would call a subtle intervention in the psyche, but it highlights the ways that information capitalism is still dependent upon material forms of production.