Brian Holmes on Sun, 6 Jan 2002 04:58:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Flexible Personality, part I

Friends, Nettimers -

Following is a longish text on the fetish and ideology of flexibility, and
the contemporary possibilities for systemic critique. The first draft was
presented at a symposium called "The Cultural Touch," organized at the
Kunstlerhaus in Vienna by Boris Buden and the School for Theoretical
Politics in June of this year. It will be published by them, and in a book
of my essays upcoming from Arkzin in Zagreb.

The main idea, about the ambiguities of the networked managerial class, is
not new: after all, "The Californian Ideology," by Richard Barbrook and
Andy Cameron, was written in 1995.  But the absorption of counter-cultural
practices in a working neoliberal hegemony turns out to be not just a
California product. Nor do I think we can blame it all on the popularity of
Deleuze. What I try to analyze here is the way a new culture-ideology was
forged in response to the response to the last great cycle of dissent in
the 60s-70s, how it came to center on the personal computer, and how it
fits into an integrated economic system, that of "flexible accumulation."
The demonstration takes the form of a dialectical reevaluation and
actualization of some of the central theses of the Frankfurt School.

Your comments are welcome, I hope to learn something. The paper is also
written as an academic mole, hence the programmatic style and the detailed
footnotes. Anyone who wants to publish it in an academic journal, or in a
language other than English, contact me. - Brian


The Flexible Personality:
For a New Cultural Critique

Brian Holmes

The events of the century's turn, from Seattle to New York, have shown that
a sweeping critique of capitalist globalization is socially possible, and
urgently necessary - before the level of violence in the world dramatically
increases. The beginnings of such a critique exist, with the renewal of
"unorthodox" economics.1 But now one can look further, toward a critique of
contemporary capitalist culture.
        To be effective, a cultural critique must show the links between
the major articulations of power and the more-or-less trivial aesthetics of
everyday life. It must reveal the systematicity of social relations and
their compelling character for everyone involved, even while it points to
the specific discourses, images, and emotional attitudes that hide
inequality and raw violence. It must shatter the balance of consent, by
flooding daylight on exactly what a society consents to, how it tolerates
the intolerable. Such a critique is difficult to put into practice because
it must work on two opposed levels, coming close enough to grips with the
complexity of social processes to convince the researchers whose
specialized knowledge it needs, while finding striking enough expressions
of its conclusions to sway the people whom it claims to describe - those
upon whose behavior the transformation of the status quo depends. 
        This kind of critique existed very recently in our societies, it
gave intellectual focus to an intense and widespread dissatisfaction in the
sixties and seventies, it helped change an entire system. Today it seems to
have vanished. No longer does the aesthetic dimension appear as a contested
bridge between the psyche and the objective structures of society. It is as
though we had lost the taste for the negative, the ambition of an
anti-systemic critique. In its place we find endless variants on
Anglo-American "cultural studies" - which is an affirmative strategy, a
device for adding value, not for taking it away. The history of cultural
studies argues today for a renewal of ideological critique.
        When it emerged in the late fifties, British cultural studies tried
to reverse aesthetic hierarchies by turning the language of literary
criticism onto working-class practices and forms. Elevating popular
expressions by a process of contamination that also transformed the elite
culture, it sought to create positive alternatives to the new kinds of
domination projected by the mass media. The approach greatly diversified
the range of legitimate subjects and academic styles, and thereby making a
real contribution to the ideal of popular education.2 However, its key
theoretical tool was the notion of a differential reception, or "negotiated
reading" - a personal touch given to the message by the receiver. The
notion was originally used to reveal working-class interpretations of
dominant messages, in a model still based on class consciousness.3 But when
the emphasis on reception was detached from the dynamics of class, in the
course of the 1980s, cultural studies became one long celebration of the
particular twist that each individual or group could add to the globalized
media product. In this way, cultural studies gave legitimacy to a new,
transnational consumer ideology.4 This is the discourse of alienation
perfected, appropriated, individualized, ethnicized, made one's own.
        How can cultural critique become effective again today? I am going
to argue for the construction of an "ideal type," revealing the
intersection of social power with intimate moral dispositions and erotic
drives.5 I call this ideal type the _flexible personality_. The word
"flexible" alludes directly to the current economic system, with its casual
labor contracts, its just-in-time production, its informational products,
and its absolute dependence on virtual currency circulating in the
financial sphere. But it also refers to an entire set of very positive
images, spontaneity, creativity, cooperativity, mobility, peer relations,
appreciation of difference, openness to present experience. If you feel
close to the counter-culture of the sixties-seventies, then you can say
that these are _our_ creations, but caught in the distorting mirror of a
new hegemony. It has taken considerable historical effort from all of us to
make the insanity of contemporary society tolerable.
        I am going to look back over recent history to show how a form of
cultural critique was effectively articulated in intellectual and then in
social terms, during the post-World War II period. But I will also show how
the current structures of domination result, in part, from the failures of
that earlier critique to evolve in the face of its own absorption by
contemporary capitalism.

Question Authority
The paradigmatic example of cultural critique in the postwar period is the
Institut fur Sozialforshung - the autonomous scholarly organization known
as the Frankfurt School. Its work can be summed up with the theoretical
abbreviation of Freudo-Marxism. But what does that mean? Reviewing the
texts, you find that from as early as 1936, the Institut articulated its
analysis of domination around the psychosociological structures of
authority. The goal of the _Studien uber Autoritat und Familie_ was to
remedy "the failure of traditional Marxism to explain the reluctance of the
proletariat to fulfill its historical role."6 This "reluctance" - nothing
less than the working-class embrace of Nazism - could only be understood
through an exploration of the way that social forces unfold in the psyche.
The decline of the father's authority over the family, and the increasing
role of social institutions in forming the personality of the child, was
shown to run parallel to the liquidation of liberal, patrimonial
capitalism, under which the nineteenth-century bourgeois owner directly
controlled an inherited family capital. Twentieth-century monopoly
capitalism entailed a transfer of power from private individuals to
organized, impersonal corporations. The psychological state of masochistic
submission to authority, described by Erich Fromm, was inseparable from the
mechanized order of the new industrial cartels, their ability to integrate
individuals within the complex technological and organizational chains of
mass-production systems. The key notion of "instrumental reason" was
already in germ here. As Marcuse wrote in 1941: "The facts directing man's
thought and action are... those of the machine process, which itself
appears as the embodiment of rationality and expediency.... Mechanized mass
production is filling the empty spaces in which individuality could assert
        The Institut's early work combined a psychosociological analysis of
authoritarian discipline with the philosophical notion of instrumental
reason. But its powerful anti-systemic critique could not crystallize
without studies of the centrally planned economy, conceived as a social and
political response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Institut members
Friedrich Pollock and Otto Kirchheimer were among the first to characterize
the new "state capitalism" of the 1930s.8 Overcoming the traditional
Marxist portrayal of monopoly capitalism, which had met its dialectical
contradiction in the crisis of 1929, they described a definitive shift away
from the liberal system where production and distribution were governed by
contractualized market relations between individual agents. The new system
was a managerial capitalism where production and distribution were
calculated by a central-planning state. The extent of this shift was
confirmed not only by the Nazi-dominated industrial cartels in Germany, but
also by the Soviet five-year plans, or even the American New Deal,
anticipating the rise of the Keynesian welfare state. Authority was again
at the center of the analysis. "Under state capitalism," wrote Pollock,
"men meet each other as commander or commanded."9 Or, in Kirchheimer's
words: "Fascism characterizes the stage at which the individual has
completely lost his independence and the ruling groups have become
recognized by the state as the sole legal parties to political
        The resolution of economic crisis by centralized planning for total
war concretely revealed what Pollock called the "vital importance" of an
investigation "as to whether state capitalism can be brought under
democratic control." This investigation was effectively undertaken by the
Institut during its American exile, when it sought to translate its
analysis of Nazism into the American terms of the Cold War. What we now
remember most are the theory and critique of the culture industry, and the
essay of that name; but much more important at the time was a volume of
sociological research called _The Authoritarian Personality_, published in
1950.11 Written under Horkheimer's direction by a team of four authors
including Adorno, the book was an attempt to apply statistical methods of
sociology to the empirical identification of a fascistic character
structure. It used questionnaire methods to demonstrate the existence of a
"new anthropological type" whose traits were rigid conventionalism,
submission to authority, opposition to everything subjective, stereotypy,
an emphasis on power and toughness, destructiveness and cynicism, the
projection outside the self of unconscious emotional impulses, and an
exaggerated concern with sexual scandal. In an echo to the earlier study of
authority, these traits were correlated with a family structure marked not
by patriarchal strength but rather weakness, resulting in attempts to sham
an ascendancy over the children which in reality had devolved to social
        _The Authoritarian Personality_ represents the culmination of a
deliberately programmed, interdisciplinary construction of an ideal type: a
polemical image of the social self which could then guide and structure
various kinds of critique. The capacity to focus different strands of
critique is the key function of this ideal type, whose importance goes far
beyond that of the statistical methodologies used in the
questionnaire-study. Adorno's rhetorical and aesthetic strategies, for
example, only take on their full force in opposition to the densely
constructed picture of the authoritarian personality. Consider this quote
from the essay on "Commitment" in 1961:

"Newspapers and magazines of the radical Right constantly stir up
indignation against what is unnatural, over-intellectual, morbid and
decadent: they know their readers. The insights of social psychology into
the authoritarian personality confirm them. The basic features of this type
include conformism, respect for a petrified facade of opinion and society,
and resistance to impulses that disturb its order or evoke inner elements
of the unconscious that cannot be admitted. This hostility to anything
alien or alienating can accommodate itself much more easily to literary
realism of any provenance, even if it proclaims itself critical or
socialist, than to works which swear allegiance to no political slogans,
but whose mere guise is enough to disrupt the whole system of rigid
coordinates that governs authoritarian personalities..."12

        Adorno seeks to show how Brechtean or Sartrean political engagement
could shade gradually over into the unquestioning embrace of order that
marks an authoritarian state. The fractured, enigmatic forms of Beckett or
Schoenberg could then be seen as more politically significant than any call
to rally collectively around a cause. Turned at once against the weak
internal harmonies of a satisfied individualism, and against the far more
powerful totalizations of an exploitative system, aesthetic form in
Adorno's vision becomes a dissenting force through its refusal to falsely
resolve the true contradictions. As he writes in one of his rhetorical
phrases: "It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to
resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a
pistol to men's heads."13
        The point is not to engage in academic wrangling over exactly how
Adorno conceived this resistance of contradictory forms. More interesting
is to see how a concerted critique can help give rise to effective
resistance in society. The most visible figure here is Herbert Marcuse,
whose 1964 book _One-Dimensional Man_ became an international best-seller,
particularly in France. Students in the demonstrations of May '68 carried
placards reading "Marx, Mao, Marcuse." But this only shows how Marcuse,
with his directly revolutionary stance, could become a kind of emblem for
converging critiques of the authoritarian state, industrial discipline, and
the mass media. In France, Sartre had written of "serialized man," while
Castoriadis developed a critique of bureaucratic productivism. In America,
the business writer William Whyte warned against the "organization man" as
early as 1956, while in 1961 an outgoing president, Dwight D. Eisenhower,
denounced the technological dangers of the "military-industrial complex."
Broadcast television was identified as the major propaganda tool of
capitalism, beginning with Vance Packard's book _The Hidden Persuaders_ in
America in 1957, then continuing more radically with Barthes' _Mythologies_
in France and above all, Debord's _Society of the Spectacle_. Ivan Illich
and Paul Goodman attacked school systems as centers of social
indoctrination, R.D. Laing and Felix Guattari called for an
anti-psychiatry, and Henri Lefebvre for an anti-urbanism, which the
Situationists put into effect with the practice of the _derive_. In his
_Essay on Liberation_, written immediately after '68, Marcuse went so far
as to speak of an outbreak of mass surrealism - which, he thought, could
combine with a rising of the racialized lumpen proletariat in the US and a
wider revolt of the Third World.
        I don't mean to connect all this subversive activity directly to
the Frankfurt School. But the "Great Refusal" of the late sixties and early
seventies was clearly aimed at the military-industrial complexes, at the
regimentation and work discipline they produced, at the blandishments of
the culture industry that concealed these realities, and perhaps above all,
at the existential and psychosocial condition of the "authoritarian
personality." The right-wing sociologist Samuel Huntington recognized as
much, when he described the revolts of the 1960s as "a general challenge to
the existing systems of authority, public and private."14 But that was just
stating the obvious. In seventies America, the omnipresent counter-culture
slogan was "Question Authority."
        What I have tried to evoke here is the intellectual background of
an effective anti-systemic movement, turned against capitalist productivism
in its effects on both culture and subjectivity. All that is summed up in a
famous bit of French graffiti, _On ne peut pas tomber amoureux d'une courbe
de croissance_ ("You can't fall in love with a growth curve"). In its very
erotics, that writing on the walls of May '68 suggests what I have not yet
mentioned, which is the positive content of the anti-systemic critique: a
desire for equality and social unity, for the suppression of the class
divide. Self-management and direct democracy were the fundamental demands
of the student radicals in 1968, and by far the most dangerous feature of
their leftist ideology.15 As Juergen Habermas wrote in 1973: "Genuine
participation of citizens in the processes of political will-formation,
that is, substantive democracy, would bring to consciousness the
contradiction between administratively socialized production and the
continued private appropriation and use of surplus value."16 In other
words, increasing democratic involvement would rapidly show people where
their real interests lie. Again, Huntington seemed to agree, when he in
turn described the "crisis" of the advanced societies as "an excess of
        One might recall that the infamous 1975 Trilateral Commission
report in which Huntington made that remark was specifically concerned with
the growing "ungovernability" of the developed societies, in the wake of
the social movements of the sixties. One might also recall that this
specter of ungovernability was precisely the foil against which Margaret
Thatcher, in England, was able to marshal up her "conservative
revolution."18 In other words, what Huntington called "the democratic
distemper" of the sixties was the background against which the present
neoliberal hegemony arose. And so the question I would now like to ask is
this: how did the postindustrial societies absorb the "excess of democracy"
that had been set loose by the anti-authoritarian revolts? Or to put it
another way: how did the 1960s finally serve to make the 1990s tolerable?

Divide and Recuperate
"We lack a serious history of co-optation, one that understands corporate
thought as something other than a cartoon," writes the American historian
and culture critic Thomas Frank.19 In a history of the advertising and
fashion industries called _The Conquest of Cool_, he attempts to retrieve
the specific strategies that made sixties "hip" into nineties "hegemon,"
transforming cultural industries based on stultifying conformism into even
more powerful industries based on a plethoric offer of "authenticity,
individuality, difference, and rebellion." With a host of examples, he
shows how the desires of middle-class dropouts in the sixties were rapidly
turned into commodified images and products. Avoiding a simple manipulation
theory, Frank concludes that the advertisers and fashion designers involved
had an existential interest in transforming the system. The result was a
change in "the ideology by which business explained its domination of the
national life" - a change he relates, but only in passing, to David
Harvey's concept of "flexible accumulation."20 Beyond the chronicle of
stylistic co-optation, what still must be explained are the interrelations
between individual motivations, ideological justifications, and the complex
social and technical functions of a new economic system.
        A starting point can be taken from a few suggestive remarks by the
business analysts Piore and Sabel, in a book called _The Second Industrial
Divide_ (1984). Here the authors speak of a _regulation crisis_, which "is
marked by the realization that existing institutions no longer secure a
workable match between the production and the consumption of goods."21 They
locate two such crises in the history of the industrial societies, both of
which we have already considered through the eyes of the Frankfurt School:
"the rise of the large corporations, in the late nineteenth century, and of
the Keynesian welfare state, in the 1930s."22 Our own era has seen a third
such crisis: the prolonged recession of the 1970s, culminating with the oil
shock of 1973 and accompanied by endemic labor unrest throughout the
decade. This crisis brought the institutional collapse of the Fordist
mass-production regime and the welfare state, and thereby set the stage for
an _industrial divide_, which the authors situate in the early 1980s:

"The brief moments when the path of industrial development itself is at
stake we call industrial divides. At such moments, social conflicts of the
most apparently unrelated kinds determine the direction of technological
development for the following decades. Although industrialists, workers,
politicians and intellectuals may only be dimly aware that they face
technological choices, the actions that they take shape economic
institutions for long into the future. Industrial divides are therefore the
backdrop or frame for subsequent regulation crises."23

        Basing themselves on observations from Northern Italy, the authors
describe the emergence of a new production regime called "flexible
specialization," which they characterize as "a strategy of permanent
innovation: accommodation to ceaseless change, rather than an effort to
control it." Abandoning the centralized planning of the postwar years, this
new strategy works through the agency of small, independent production
units, employing skilled work teams with multi-use tool kits, and relying
on relatively spontaneous forms of cooperation with other such teams to
meet rapidly changing market demands at low cost and high speed. These
kinds of firms seemed to hark back to the craftsmen of the early nineteenth
century, before the first industrial divide that led to the introduction of
heavy machinery and the mass-production system. To be sure, in 1984 Piore
and Sabel could not yet have predicted the importance that would be
acquired by one single set of products, far from anything associated with
the nineteenth century: the personal computer and telecommunications
devices. Nonetheless, the relation they drew between a crisis in
institutional regulation and an industrial divide can help us understand
the key role that social conflict - and the cultural critique that helps
focus it - has played in shaping the organizational forms and the very
technology of the world we live in.
        What then were the conflicts that made computing and
telecommunications into the central products of the new wave of economic
growth that began after the 1970s recession? How did these conflicts affect
the labor, management, and consumption regimes? Which social groups were
integrated to the new hegemony of flexible capitalism, and how? Which were
rejected or violently excluded, and how was that violence covered over?
        So far, the most complete set of answers to these questions has
come from Christian Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, in _Le Nouvel Esprit du
Capitalism_, published in 1999.24 Their thesis is that each age or "spirit"
of capitalism must justify its irrational compulsion for accumulation by at
least partially integrating or "recuperating" the critique of the previous
era, so that the system can become tolerable again - at least for its own
managers. They identify two main challenges to capitalism: the critique of
exploitation, or what they call "social critique," developed traditionally
by the worker's movement, and the critique of alienation, or what they call
"artistic critique." The latter, they say, was traditionally a minor,
literary affair; but it became vastly more important with the mass cultural
education carried out by the welfare-state universities. Boltanski and
Chiapello trace the destinies of the major social groups in France after
the turmoil of '68, when _critique sociale_ joined hands with _critique
artiste_. They show how the most organized fraction of the labor force was
accorded unprecedented economic gains, even as future production was
gradually reorganized and delocalized to take place outside union control
and state regulation. But they also demonstrate how the young, aspiring
managerial class, whether still in the universities or at the lower
echelons of enterprise, became the major vector for the artistic critique
of authoritarianism and bureaucratic impersonality. The strong point of
Boltanski and Chiapello's book is to demonstrate how the organizational
figure of the _network_ emerged to provide a magical answer to the
anti-systemic cultural critique of the 1950s and 60s - a magical answer, at
least for the aspirant managerial class.
        What are the social and aesthetic attractions of networked
organization and production? First, the pressure of a rigid, authoritarian
hierarchy is eased, by eliminating the complex middle-management ladder of
the Fordist enterprises, and opening up shifting, one-to-one connections
between network members. Second, spontaneous communication, creativity and
relational fluidity can be encouraged in a network as factors of
productivity and motivation, thus overcoming the alienation of impersonal,
rationalized procedures. Third, extended mobility can be tolerated or even
demanded, t
o the extent that tool-kits become increasingly miniaturized or even purely
mental, allowing work to be relayed through telecommunications channels.
Fourth, the standardization of products that was the visible mark of the
individual's alienation under the mass-production regime can be attenuated,
by the configuration of small-scale or even micro-production networks to
produce limited series of custom objects or personalized services.25 Fifth,
desire can be stimulated and new, rapidly obsolescent products can be
created by working directly within the cultural realm as coded by
multimedia in particular, thus at once addressing the demand for meaning on
the part of employees and consumers, and resolving part of the problem of
falling demand for the kinds of long-lasting consumer durables produced by
Fordist factories.
        As a way of summing up all these advantages, it can be said that
the networked organization gives back to the employee - or better, to the
"prosumer" - the _property_ of him- or herself that the traditional firm
had sought to purchase as the commodity of labor power. The strict division
between production and consumption tends to disappear, and alienation
appears to be overcome, as individuals aspire to mix their labor with their
leisure.26 Even the firm begins to conceive of work qualitatively, as a
sphere of creative activity, of self-realization. "Connectionist man" - or
in my term, "the networker" - is delivered from direct surveillance and
paralyzing alienation to become the manager of his or her own
self-gratifying activity, as long as that activity translates at some point
into valuable economic exchange, the _sine qua non_ for remaining within
the network.
        Obviously, the young advertisers and fashion designers described by
Thomas Frank could see an interest in this loosening of hierarchies. But
the gratifying self-possession and self-management of the networker has an
ideological advantage as well: responding to the demands of May '68, it
becomes the perfect legitimating argument for the continuing destruction,
by the capitalist class, of the heavy, bureaucratic, alienating,
profit-draining structures of the welfare state that also represented most
all the historical gains that the workers had made through social critique.
By co-opting the aesthetic critique of alienation, the networked enterprise
is able to legitimate the gradual exclusion of the workers' movement and
the destruction of social programs. Thus, artistic critique becomes one of
the linchpins of the new hegemony invented in the early 1980s by Reagan and
Thatcher, and perfected in the 1990s by Clinton and the inimitable Tony
        To recuperate from the setbacks of the sixties and seventies,
capitalism had to be become doubly flexible, imposing casual labor
contracts and "delocalized" production sites to escape the regulation of
the welfare state, and using this fragmented production apparatus to create
the consumer seductions and stimulating careers that were needed to regain
the loyalty of potentially revolutionary managers and intellectual workers.
This double movement is what gives rise to the system conceived by David
Harvey as a regime of "flexible accumulation" - a notion that describes not
only the structure and discipline of the new work processes, but also the
forms and lifespans of the individually tailored and rapidly obsolescent
products that are created, and the new, more volatile modes of consumption
that the system promotes.27 For the needs of contemporary cultural critique
we should recognize, at the crux of this transformation, the role of the
personal computer, assembled along with its accompanying telecommunications
devices in high-tech sweatshops across the world. The mainstay of what has
also been called the "informational economy," the computer and its
attendant devices are at once industrial and cultural tools, embodying a
compromise that temporarily resolved the social struggles unleashed by
artistic critique. The laptop serves as a portable instrument of control
over the casualized laborer and the fragmented production process, while at
the same time freeing up the nomadic manager for forms of mobility both
physical and fantasmatic; it successfully miniaturizes one's access to the
remaining bureaucratic functions, while opening a private channel into the
realms of virtual or "fictitious" capital, the financial markets where
surplus value is produced as if by magic, despite the accumulating physical
signs of crisis and decay. Technically a calculator, the personal computer
has been turned by its social usage into an image- and language machine:
the productive instrument, communications vector, and indispensable
receiver of the immaterial goods and semiotic services that now form the
leading sector of the economy.28
        Geographical dispersal and global coordination of manufacturing,
just-in-time production and containerized delivery systems, a generalized
acceleration of consumption cycles, and a flight of overaccumulated capital
into the lightning-fast financial sphere, whose movements are at once
reflected and stimulated by the equally swift evolution of global media:
these are among the major features of the flexible accumulation regime as
it has developed since the late 1970s. David Harvey, like most Marxist
theorists, sees this transnational redeployment of capital as a reaction to
social struggles, which increasingly tended to limit the levels of resource
and labor exploitation possible within nationally regulated space. A
similar kind of reasoning is used, on the other end of the political
spectrum, by the business analysts Piore and Sabel when they claim that
"social conflicts of the most apparently unrelated kinds determine the
course of technological development" at the moment of an industrial divide.
But it is, I think, only Boltanski and Chiapello's analytical division of
the resistance movements of the sixties into the two strands of artistic
and social critique that finally allows us to understand the precise
aesthetic and communicational forms generated by capitalism's recuperation
of - and from - the democratic turmoil of the 1960s. 

(continued in part II)

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