Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Commentaries on this Media!

Optimal Subjects of Millennial Capitalism

by Ethan Tussey

by Seb Franklin for IN MEDIA RES

If one takes seriously Fredric Jameson’s assertion that Marxism is the “science of capitalism,” unmatched in its capacity to describe both “the historical originality” of that political-economic system and the “fundamental structural contradictions [which] endow it with its political and prophetic vocation,” defining a specifically millennial Marxism requires an inquiry into the features specific to millennial capitalism. What does capitalism look like today? From a certain perspective it is easy to locate distinctions that appear to answer this question: for an image of technology, replace the steam engine with the computer; for an image of labor, replace the Ford production line with the Googleplex or the ‘Starbucks office’; for an image of circulation, replace the railway timetable or the shipping chart with the distributed network diagram or the Supply Chain Management system.

While a focus on technology and infrastructure is important and necessary, a slightly different set of questions allows one to address the dynamics of subjectification, exclusion and dispossession that undergird global capitalism in the so-called information age in a more fundamental way. What do we look like to capitalism today? Or, to call attention to the dynamics of exploitation and exclusion: what constitutes the optimal subject from the point of view of a system of valorization that extends beyond the nominal workplace to subsume sociality in general?

The attached video, in which the pitchman/sales training ‘guru’ Joel Bauer demonstrates his suitcase packing methodology, represents the reductio ad absurdum of this optimal subject. Here one finds a literalization of Gary Becker’s formulation of the generic social actor as a “decision unit” whose existence is nothing more that a series of rational investments in their human capital. One finds an exemplification of Maurizio Lazzarato’s immaterial labor and Bernard Stiegler’s proletarianization of the life of the mind. Beyond these markers of a new kind of ideal political subject, though, one also finds the distinctive markers of privilege serving as reminders that access to the frictionless world of plenty the knowledge economy promises is never only a matter of how far one is willing to submit oneself to the abstractions of immaterial labor, human capital, or what have you. By looking beyond particular devices or working practices and apprehending the ideal citizen of late capitalism in this way it becomes possible to inquire into the epistemic conditions, some new and some very old, that govern inclusion and exclusion today.

Marxism and Ideal Subjects

A clip of Joel Bauer teaching people how to pack a suitcase

from Joel Bauer - How to pack your suitcase (2013)
Creator: Joel Bauer
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey