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Towards a Maternal Capitalism?

It has become commonplace to speak about the “fatherless society.” This is not because fathers no longer exist (there are indeed still a lot of people around who claim to be so), but because they exhibit behaviours that were usually associated with the other side of the parental coin: in today’s advanced capitalist societies, fathers change diapers, feed their newborns, and they even have to invent ever new forms of entertainment to catch up with the exuberance of the infantile imagination. In sum, fathers try to provide the physical and emotional care that was once typically associated with women and nannies. Is it possible to look at this transformation in the context of a broader change within capitalism itself? Has not capitalism itself become more maternal, so much so that behaviours once associated with women have now become customary — and even mandatory — for everybody? In this brief intervention, we would like to test this hypothesis by comparing labour conditions in two modes of production that, for the sake of brevity, we will call Fordist* and post-Fordist.

First, as many complained, in the Fordist factory labour was rigid, repetitive, and alienating, insofar as it was totally dependent on machines. The fact that nothing was hand-made, but produced through machines guaranteed the standardization of the product. Even those of us who have never worked in a factory have in the depths of our minds Charlie Chaplin’s parody of such machine-like movements and the homogenizing effects of standardized mass production.

Second, the aim of the assembly-line was clearly the production of an object: a hard, tangible product. This product was certainly dressed up in the fascinating cloths of commodity fetishism, but it remained an object nonetheless. In other words, it was something that, as the Latin etymology of the term reminds us, is literally ob-iectum, thrown in front of us: we can find and touch it at the end of the production process.

Third, this entire process and the consequent increase of productivity was made possible by a rigid centralization and rationalization: everything took place on the same premises as planned, every single gesture of the worker was split into its smallest possible parts in order to maximize speed, because everything happened under vigilant control from above.

Those who are familiar with the imaginary of the masculine will not fail to recognize here some of its main features. The mechanical gesture, the rigidity of the object, the emphasis on order and centralization can be easily summarized in one single, somehow technical, but still very evocative word: the phallus.

By contrast, what are the features of the so-called post-Fordist mode of production?

First, the machine-like gesture of mute labour has been replaced by emphasis on management participation, inventiveness, and creativity. As many have noticed, this was the capitalist response to the critique of the 1960s: “You complain that labour conditions are alienating and repetitive? Well, you may be right: all power to the imagination!” And apparently it worked: fluidity took the place of mechanicism, and neoliberal ideology adopted the infamous “repressive hypothesis” (Foucault), according to which the creative potentials of fictitious capital (credit, interest, finance) needed to be liberated in order to intensify the creation of wealth, the capacity of monetary and financial abstractions to “bear its own children” (Marx). The old dependency on labour is said to have prevented capitalism from fully realizing its maternity: giving birth to value without labourers. The neoliberal tendency toward the liberation of financial abstractions makes of capital the paradigm of the self-employed. In this fantastic, fetishist scenario, capitalist abstractions “labour” in both senses of the verb. We are indeed dealing with the shaping of social reality in the direction of what Marx rightly denounced as the capital-fetish, where the fetishization evolves into self-fetishization.

Second, the obsession with the mass production of objects has been replaced by a new emphasis on the tertiary: whereas objects occupy space and there is therefore a point where obsession must find a limit, there is no limit to the “services” one can provide. In sum, care replaced the object, by putting on the same phantasmagoria of a commodity. Hence the constant demand for flexibility and mobility of labour. The subject is now confronted with the imperative to permanently reinvent herself. The so-often professed adaptability of capital has become a universal political-economic ideal: what is bought and sold on the market is not so much the commodity labour-power, this minimal possession of every subject, but the adaptability, competitiveness and the “gift” of reinvention. Those who fail to match this model are among the surplus population of seemingly useless but in fact perfectly exploitable subjects.

Finally, care and inventiveness could not go hand-in-hand with centralization and planning, so they too had to be reinvented: the factory has become diffused and its production “just in time”! In sum: diffusion replaced centralization. The most important consequence of this decentering was that class struggle — this privileged Marxian name for the negativity that traverses the historical, social and subjective reality — has been finally neutralized and overcome. In the new decentered scenario, the spectral life of capital, this Ur-Mother, to which we are told to be deeply indebted, first and foremost with our existence, confronts the subject more radically with the insatiable structural demands of capital. While the internal opponent, the organized working class has been successfully neutralized, various capitalisms can stand now in a direct competition, which revolves above all around deregulation: the more capitalism is deregulated, the freer the supposed creative potentials of capital.

For those who are familiar with the literature on the maternal imaginary, it is impossible to miss the connection with some of its central features: the fluidity of the feminine as opposed to the rigidity of the masculine, the care-oriented action of the emotional subject as opposed to the rationality of the machine-like mass production of objects, the diffusion and instability of the female (possibly hysterical) subject as opposed to the centralization and control of the phallic (possibly obsessive) masculine subject. True, all of these are stereotypes that need to be dismantled, but it may be worth considering them once more before we do so, because we take the risk of burying them alive.

Are we moving towards a more “maternal” capitalism? This is a hypothesis we should perhaps consider by keeping in mind that a mother is as hard to get rid of as a father.

*For the sake of simplicity, we join here Taylorism, which first developed in Europe, with Fordism, its US variant, although on certain accounts Fordism already introduced some flexibility in comparison to its Taylorist antecedent.

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Chiara Bottici

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