– Spring 2012

The Operation Was a Success But the Patient Died

Maija Timonen

Hito Steyerl, Lovely Andrea, 2007, DVD, 30min, still. Photograph: Creative Commons. Courtesy the artist

Medical metaphors for the economy are liberally applied at times of crisis. The analysis of formative pathologies of capitalism, however, is generally popular in academic and critical contexts at all times. The well-worn joke of this essay's title, applied to the context of cuts in public spending, articulates a fairly reformist position: if you punish the system too much, it won’t survive.1 But perhaps something more interesting, and more pertinent to the functioning of capitalism, is captured in the uncertain identity of the subject at the centre of the sentence — the patient.

Who is the patient? The ambiguity of its referent captures something of the confusion of interests when discussing the economy. The patient of the title could be the economy as a whole or perhaps the real subjects whom austerity affects. The identification of individual interests with market interests may be a sinister feature of neoliberalism, but this merger serves here to highlight its own contradictory nature. The following text will attempt to formulate if not a diagnosis, then at least a very partial and fragmented anamnesis of cultural phenomena that accompany the current moment of austerity.

The Patient

When Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote about the bourgeois subject in their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), they described, in the chapter on Odysseus, a certain logic of self-effacement that belies a deeper level of subjective power. Odysseus triumphs over mythical forces through cunning; he deceives his supernatural opponents, often through feigning weakness or compliance to the rules of his adversary. That is, he plays a long con of sorts, but one with an inbuilt paradox. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s treatment, his game evolves into a

  1. See, for example, the column of the Keynesian economist Paul Krugman, ‘The Bleeding Cure’, The New York Times, 18 September 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/19/opinion/ economic-bleeding-cure.html (last accessed on 2 December 2011).

  2. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. John Cumming), London and New York: Verso, 1997, p.51. 

  3. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (ed. Todd Dufresne, trans. Gregory C. Richter), Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2011, p.52. 

  4. This process is often considered to date back to 1971 and the end of the Bretton Woods Agreement, which had stipulated fixed international interest rates and that the US dollar be pegged to gold. 

  5. This could mean a temporal effect generated by the absence of consequence that for Jean Baudrillard was a feature of the postmodern decontextualised referencing of signifiers. See J. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (trans. Sheila Glaser), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. 

  6. Fredric Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983—1998, London and New York: Verso, 1998, pp.36—161.

  7. ‘Autonomisation’ also appears in Jameson’s other writings. It surfaces as a marker for certain formal characteristics of modernism, namely the breaking down of the world, of the representational construct, into separate components. Jameson sees this as the aesthetic manifestation of the inception of mass production (more specifically the conveyor-belt logic of the Fordist model) that translates the shock of modernity into a formal representation. Jameson sees autonomisation undergoing a transformation in postmodernity. As the shock of the breakdown fades, the autonomous fragments of postmodernism become superficial and affectless. See F. Jameson, Brecht and Method, London and New York: Verso, 1998, pp.55—65. 

  8. Some have characterised the current financial situation as a crisis of overproduction. For one take on this, see William I. Robinson, ‘The Global Capital Leviathan’, Radical Philosophy, issue 165, January/February 2011, pp.2—6. 

  9. Owen Hatherley, ‘Lash Out and Cover Up: Austerity Nostalgia and Ironic Authoritarianism in Recession Britain’, Radical Philosophy, issue 157, September/October 2009, pp.2—7. 

  10. Adorno and Horkheimer draw attention to the part of Odysseus’s story where he escapes death through confusion between his name and the word for nobody. Odysseus survives by effacing himself.

  11. For example, the World Economic Forum 2011 in Davos was focused around the concept of ‘New Reality’. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12282938 (last accessed on 2 December 2011). 

  12. Examples of this logic of making sacrifices now for a better future are rife in said speech. The speech is available, among other places, at  http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/04/george-osborne-speech-conservative-conference (last accessed on 2 December 2011). 

  13. ‘We do all this because we know that the sacrifices our country makes will not be made in vain. That the difficult choices we have made will not have been made for nothing.’ Ibid. 

  14. It is realism only in the sense of Mark Fisher’s use of the word in his popular book Capitalist Realism (London: Zero Books, 2009). He describes a pervasive ideology of there not being any reasonable alternative to capitalism, however bad everyone might know capitalism to be. 

  15. The economic and fiscal outlook report released by The Office for Budget Responsibility on 29 November 2011, the day of George Osborne’s autumn statement, cut down the previous growth forecasts dramatically. The report is available at http://budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/ economic-and-fiscal-outlook-november-2011 (last accessed on 2 December 2011). See also the report published by James Browne, ‘Living standards during the recession’ (London: Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2011), in which he alleges: ‘Our best estimate is that incomes in 2013—14 will still be below those in 2008—09 and this will be the biggest drop over a five year period since the five years from 1972 to 1977.’ Also available at http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn117.pdf (last accessed on 2 December 2011). 

  16. Many thanks to Benedict Seymour for his comments on an earlier text, in which he pointed out the subversion of instrumental reason linked to the changing material basis of capitalism, and to which this text is indebted. 

  17. T. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, op. cit., p.62. 

  18. See S. Freud, ‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’, The Standard Edition of the Comple Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII, An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (trans. and ed. James Strachey), London: Vintage, 2001. 

  19. Thanks to Samo Tomšič for discussing with me the Wolf Man, trauma and black holes, and elaborating on this temporality. Many thanks also to Rachel Baker and Jenny Nachtigall for discussions, ideas and comments on this text overall. 

  20. Hatherley also discusses this in relation to ‘austerity nostalgia’. See O. Hatherley, ‘Lash Out and Cover Up’, op. cit. 

  21. This is Krugman’s characterisation of austerity measures. See P. Krugman, ‘The Bleeding Cure’, op. cit.