What saves us is efficiency-the devotion to efficiency.
—Marlow, in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Life appears as a pause on the energy path; as a precarious stabilization and complication of solar decay. It is most basically comprehensible as the general solution to the problem of consumption.
—Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation
The belief that all things should act efficiently is at the core of both Fordist and post-Fordist forms of capitalism. Why should this be so? One could say that the concept of efficiency arose out of its opposite: inefficiency, as its negation. Most of modern economic theory grew out of this battle for efficiency and has been based on optimizing time, motion, and waste. One might say that the whole Progressive era of which we remain tied was bound by this pursuit of efficiency (perfection, growth, optimization) in the political, economic, social, and engineering (technics/technology) realms. Ultimately the central motif of modernity is the zeal for efficiency, and the desire to control a changing world, by bringing it into conformity with a vision of how the world does or should work.1 One might go further and Weberize it saying that modern global capitalism is the child of Christian perfectionism.
The terms “perfect” and “perfection” are drawn from the Greek teleios and teleiōsis, respectively. The root word, telos, means an “end” or “goal”. In contemporary translations, teleios and teleiōsis are often rendered as “mature” and “maturity”, respectively, so as not to imply infallibility or the absence of defects. Rather, in the Christian tradition, teleiōsis has referred to progressing towards spiritual wholeness or health. In the secular form that would enter into the concept of efficiency this movement from defect to wholeness or completion, would end in capital accumulation: profits, surplus, excess, etc. would take priority in engineering machines, assembly lines, and the mereology of the machinic or the techno-commercial sphere that in our moment is leading to total efficiency in digital economy and the autonomy of the machinic in robotics and AGI. The elimination of inefficiencies has led to the final struggle of eliminating the human from the equation. Capitalism perfected is a process in which humans are annihilated and expulsed as inefficient.
Aristotle and Mereology
Aristotle once again is central to this since he founded mereology. Are part/whole relations. From my own experience this notion has always been central in software development with the introduction of Objects. In computer science, the class concept of object-oriented programming lends a mereological aspect to programming not found in either imperative programs or declarative programs. Method inheritance enriches this application of mereology by providing for passing procedural information down the part-whole relation, thereby making method inheritance a naturally arising aspect of mereology. One could say that the data persists down the tree or pipeline. Data persistence is central to any general systems theory as well, and being able to measure its outcome and tendencies, too. (I’ll not debate the fine points. All of this is gloss and notes, anyway!)
Aristotle was probably the first to reduce the notion of a tendency to a conceptual clarification in his carefully argued notions Four Causes. In his breakdown of the Four Causes he introduces the notion of ‘telos’ or end of a process of an artisan bronze caster, etc.. Moreover, his teleological explanation does not crucially depend upon the application of psychological concepts such as desires, beliefs and intentions (i.e., he was dealing not with psychological states, but rather natural processes and not imputing intentional acts to these processes). This is important because artistic production provides Aristotle with a teleological model for the study of natural processes, whose explanation does not involve beliefs, desires, intentions, directedness or anything of this sort. Some have contended that Aristotle explains natural process on the basis of an inappropriately psychological teleological model; that is to say, a teleological model that involves a purposive agent who is somehow sensitive to the end. This objection can be met if the artistic model is understood in non-psychological terms. In other words, Aristotle does not psychologize nature because his study of the natural world is based on a teleological model that is consciously free from psychological factors. So this separation of telos and intention should be central to the notion of tendency in its modern economic variant which comes under the notion of central tendency. At least in Aristotle’s concept a tendency is that which tends not to change in a changing natural or artificial process, from which one can deduce the various causes and describe the process itself through all its movements in time, etc.
This notion of tendency can be related to perfectionism in the sense of the demiurgic artist (worker of technics) and the slow methodical movement from potential to actuality in the implementation of the Four Causes. Aristotle argues for the priority in substance of actuality over potentiality in his case for the Four Causes and motion (movement). His argument makes use of his notion of final causality. Things that come to be move toward an end (telos)—the boy becomes a man, the acorn becomes an oak—and “the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this that the potentiality is acquired … animals do not see in order that they may have sight, but they have sight that they may see … matter exists in a potential state, just because it may come to its form; and when it exists actually, then it is in its form” (1050a9–17). Form or actuality is the end toward which natural processes are directed. Actuality is therefore a cause in more than one sense of a thing’s realizing its potential (tendency).
(Of course many would argue against Aristotle and his substantive theory, etc. I’ll not go into this long history and debate.)
Thorstein Veblen and Georges Bataille: Leisure and Expenditure
As one studies the history of this concept of efficiency one begins to see this pursuit of perfection as the elimination of time, motion, and waste (or expenditure). Both Thorstein Veblen and Georges Bataille. One might say that capitalism is a management system, an activity of extracting resources, production that offers for those who get to keep what in an economy takes place through the process of material-productive waste of resources and energy. Production is an activity that gives material support for people and one in which what is extracted is transformed into commodities. This production and its concomitant discharge of waste through exploiting surplus, also involves the expenditure of energy. So that the notion of efficiency began as a the inevitable elimination of this waste in energy and time.
Perhaps Veblen’s best known work is The theory of the leisure class with its fascinating insights and satiric style. The exploitation that comes with production is emphasized early on,
…all effort directed to enhance human life by taking advantage of the non-human environment is classed together as industrial activity. By the economists who have best retained and adapted the classical tradition, man’s ‘power over nature’ is currently postulated as the characteristic fact of industrial productivity. This industrial power over nature is taken to include man’s power over the life of the beasts and over all the elemental forces (Veblen 6).
For Veblen conspicuous consumption leads to conspicuous expenditure and is an expenditure of superfluities. Veblen tries to explain that he is using the term ‘waste’ in relation to consumption/expenditure in an economic sense of utility derived as the inevitable result of such a process; that is, the term is not meant to be deprecatory and he also calls it conspicuous waste (Veblen 60-61). But he then goes on to state that ‘waste’ does have a derogatory connotation when it is not shown to be useful in serving human interests. However, to Veblen ‘waste’ is there to “serve to enhance human life on the whole” (Veblen 61).
Georges Bataille after reading the early anthropological works of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift would in his own Accursed Share develop a parallel theory of waste and expenditure. The early expression of Bataille’s ideas of ‘waste’ and ‘expenditure’ appear in his important 1933 essay “The notion of expenditure”. In the case of Veblen, he is content to show how economic utility is conflated within a system of conspicuous waste, consumption and expenditure and goes on to develop in his other work ideas relating to business, industry and capital. Underlying them is the idea of controlling people and resources, but with the sense that some of this is necessary for sustaining life as we know it.
Bataille takes a different approach; one that is an under the shadow of Nietzshe and revels in a form of orgiastic and destructive energy of creation, waste and expenditure. He also aims to give a systematic framework of how excess in the form of waste and expenditure is more an outlet for energy that must be spent, in one way or another, by human beings. Moreover, he sees capitalist excess as an idea that goes beyond Veblen’s invidious notion of the conspicuous: For Bataille capitalist excess is the means by which capitalists and the bourgeoisie not only use resources but consciously or otherwise destroy other life forms. This goes beyond just consumption – destruction becomes a way of life.
Early in the essay Bataille discusses the idea of loss. He calls productive activity that which is necessary for the conservation of life and reproduction of societal and economic structures. Unproductive activities are that which appear to have no end beyond themselves and thereby are what he terms ‘expenditure’. Such expenditure would include mourning, war, cults, the arts, sumptuary monuments, spectacles, etc. (Bataille “Notion”, 118). In effect, such activities do not conform to the standard idea of economic utility. Expenditure involves a loss, that is, it involves significant waste of resources that have no link to utility as such. Bataille terms loss as “unconditional expenditure, no matter how contrary it might be to the economic principle of balanced accounts (expenditure regularly compensated for by acquisition)” (Bataille “Notion”, 118).
However, Bataille does seem to later conflate both economic and non-economic activities as the reverse side of expenditure; for in then end, both processes involve the use of energy and the creation of waste. He mentions that forms of war and destruction are as much a part of expenditure as is production. To him the hypocrisy of capitalists and the bourgeoisie arises in that their accumulation of wealth and status is at the expense (expenditure) of the ‘lower’ classes. He describes the process of the social reproduction and maintenance of the “representatives of the bourgeoisie” underlying such attitudes as “trickery [that] has become the principal reason of living, working, and suffering for those who lack the courage to condemn this moldy society to revolutionary destruction” (Bataille “Notion”, 124).
Bataille also expounds how the rich do not want to spend on the poor but prefer to consume the poor’s losses, thereby using the expenditure of one class of people as means of accumulation for another. This is the kernel of exploitation for Bataille, as the rich create for the poor (Bataille’s emphases) –
…a category of degradation and abjection that leads to slavery…the modern world had received slavery…and has reserved it for the proletariat…[A] bourgeois society…gives the workers rights equal to those of the masters, and it announces this equality by inscribing the word on walls. But the masters, who act as if they were the expression of society itself, are preoccupied…with showing that they do not in any way share the abjection of the men they employ. The end of the workers’ activity is to produce in order to live, but the bosses’ activity is to produce in order to condemn the working producers to a hideous degradation…” (Bataille “Notion”, 125-126).
The whole idea of accumulation is the heightening of expenditure against the interests of the common folk by those who exploit them. It is through this process that the negative effects of profit made and loss, in every sense of the word, is sustained by those who are exploited. It is a process that promotes a master-slave paradigm and condemns the majority of people to some form of depraved existence.
Nick Land and the End Game of Capitalism
Of Bataille Nick Land tell us that it is not simply ridiculous to describe Bataille as Schopenhauer with enthusiasm, in so far as this might crudely characterize a certain variant of ‘Nietzscheanism’, or Dionysian pessimism. After all, Bataille too is concerned with value as the annihilation of life, challenging the utilitarianism that finds its only end in the preservation and expansion of existence. If this affirmation of loss is ‘nihilistic’, it is at least an ‘active nihilism’; the promotion of a violently convulsive expenditure rather than a weary renunciation. Art as the wastage of life. 2
For Land Bataille also has the peculiar honour, shared with Nietzsche and Reich, of beginning his assault on germinal national socialism before Hitler had exhibited its truth. His early essays sketch a vision of fascism as the most fanatical project for the elimination of excess, an attempt at the secular enforcement of the perfectly ordered city of God against the disorder, luxuriance, and mess of surplus production, as it sprawls into the voluptuary expenditure of eroticism and art. Assailing the fascist tendency is the disindividualized delirium of tragic sacrifice and revolution, when
Being is given to us in an intolerable surpassing of being, no less intolerable than death. And because, in death, it is withdrawn from us at the same time it is given, we must search for it in the feeling of death, in those intolerable moments where it seems that we are dying, because the being in us is only there through excess, when the plenitude of horror and that of joy coincide.2 (quoted by Land)
As Land would describe it a theory of the real as art (primary production) that is melded seamlessly with an anti-fascist diagnostics characterizes the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In their Anti-Oedipus they indicate that the rational regulation or coding of creative process is derivative, sterile, and eliminable. Their name for genius is ‘schizophrenia’, a term that cannot be safely domesticated within psychology, any more than ‘genius’ can (and for the same reasons). If nature is psychotic it is simply because our psychoses are not in reality ‘ours’. (ibid.) He’d explicate, saying,
Libido – as the raw energy of creation – is ungrounded, irreducibly multiple, yet it precipitates a real and unified ‘principle’ out of itself. The body without organs is its name; at once material abstraction, and the concretely hypostasized differential terrain which is nothing other than what is instantaneously shared by difference. The body without organs is pure surface, because it is the mere coherence of differential web, but it is also the source of depth, since it is the sole ‘ontological’ element of difference. It is produced transcendence. Paradox after paradox, spun like a disintegrating bandage upon the infected and deteriorating wound of Kant’s aesthetics, teasing the philosophical domestication of art – the most gangrenous cultural appendage of capital – towards its utter disintegration.
How does desire come to desire its own repression? How does production come to rigidify itself in the social straitjacket whose most dissolved form is capital? It is with this problematic, inherited from Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Reich, that Deleuze and Guattari orient their work. In our terms here: how does art become (under-) compensated labour? Their answer involves a displacement of the problem into a philosophical affinity with Kant’s paralogisms of the pure understanding, rethought in Anti-Oedipus as materially instantiated traps for desire. A paralogism is the attempt to ground ‘conditions of possibility’ in the objectivity they permit, or creativity in what it creates. This is, to take the most pertinent example, to derive the forces of production from the socio-economic apparatus they generate. Sociological fundamentalism, state worship, totalitarian paranoia and fascism, they all exhibit the same basic impulse; hatred of art, (real) freedom, desire, everything that cannot be controlled, regulated, and administered. Fascism hates aliens, migrant workers, the homeless, rootless people of every kind and inclination, everything evocative of excitement and uncertainty, women, artists, lunatics, drifting sexual drives, liquids, impurity, and abandonment. (ibid.)
The Accursed Share
In his great work in three volumes, The accursed share, Bataille looks at the economic forces of the world holistically as part of the energy that is the basis of everything. He states (Bataille’s emphasis),
…it is easy to recognize in the economy – in the production and use of wealth – a particular aspect of terrestrial activity regarded as a cosmic phenomenon. A movement is produced on the surface of the globe that results from the circulation of energy at this point in the universe. The economic activity of men appropriate this movement, making use of the resulting possibilities for certain ends….Is the general determination of energy circulating in the biosphere altered by man’s activity? (Bataille Share I, 20-21)
Here Bataille sets the stage for his analysis and examination of socio-economic-political forces as that which involve energy and expenditure – primarily through his notion of ‘exuberance’. He develops this idea by stating:
The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically (Bataille Share I, 21).
In Bataille’s scheme, no doubt influenced by quantum mechanics, energy must be harnessed and used in one form or another. And the excess energy will be transformed creatively or destructively.
In line with his holistic view of economic activity Bataille, however, also states that one problem is that the economy is not always considered in simply general terms, and that economic activity tends to be viewed as a specificity without the appropriate context to interpret it in (Bataille’s emphases):
The human mind reduces operations, in science as in life, to an entity based on typical particular systems (organisms or enterprises). Economic activity, considered as a whole, is conceived in terms of particular operations with limited ends…Economic science merely generalizes the isolated situation; it restricts its object to operations carried out with a view to a limited end, that of economic man. It does not take into consideration a play of energy that no particular end limits: the play of living matter in general…On the surface of the globe for living matter in general, energy is always in excess; the question is always posed in terms of extravagance. The choice is limited to how the wealth is to be squandered…The general movement of exudation (of waste) of living matter impels him [man], and he cannot stop it…it destines him…to useless consumption (Bataille Share I, 22-23).
Here Bataille expands on how energy and human life force is channeled and used productively and unproductively, but always as a way of extravagance/exuberance: So that no matter how many live in poverty or arguments made that necessities of life can hardly be linked to some form of wasted energy – the energy in itself cannot be accumulated “limitlessly in the productive forces; eventually…it is bound to escape us and be lost to us” (Bataille Share I, 22-23). Waste and entropy are inescapable.
Next, Bataille goes on to discuss the circulation of energy in human form and how the ground energy of humans in their quotidian activities needs to be channeled properly lest it take on (and as it also inevitably does via the capitalist paradigm) a destructive form. He notes astutely that it is the poorest economies that face blockages in the expression of this excess life force/ground energy. This in turn gets transmuted into wars and leads to further impoverishment of that society. The mishandling of this ground energy takes place through limited economic-political thinking that can lead to a situation of having to create diversions to channel this energy that may also entail wars as a means of expenditure/exuberance – on this last point Bataille is not explicit (Bataille Share 1, 23-24).
However, Bataille does make it clear later that energy that is blocked and not freely flowing and accumulated in a manner that causes income inequalities and lopsided wealth development will go through one form of massive expenditure, that is, war – which he calls an “immense squandering” (Bataille Share 1, 37). People become that portion that is expended as a sign of the surplus of wealth that can be wasted when not harnessed properly; it is also an expression of the loss of so much potential that in itself is immeasurable (the worth of a single life). This is also a “squandering without reciprocation”. For destruction of life implies the misuse of basic energy/life force or ground energy. And it is the lack of reciprocity and sharing of wealth — that which can remove blockages and allow for a smooth and equitable flow of ground energy — that underlies much of the privations of our lives (Bataille Share 1, 38-39).
To Bataille, it is this sacrifice of human beings through war and other forms of unjust/harsh activities that marks them as the accursed share (Bataille’s emphases): “The victim is a surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth…and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption.” These are the scapegoats selected to allow for the energetic imbalance of accumulation to continue for the benefit of some but at the expense of everything else. It is in effect a ritualistic economic culling or deliberate killing of humans that is needed to satiate the atavistic appetites of Moloch-Mammon. How little the human race has evolved in its antediluvian practices.
In a subsequent volume of this work, Bataille goes on to explain his idea of sovereignty. The basic distinction of sovereignty involves those who consume wealth as opposed to those that lack sovereignty and who are thereby left to produce the wealth without consuming it: “The sovereign individual consumes and doesn’t labor, whereas at the antipodes of sovereignty the slave and the man without means labor and reduce their consumption to the necessities, to the products without which they could neither subsist nor labor” (Bataille Share III, 198). This is a master-slave paradigm reproduced by capitalism within Bataille’s framework (which has Marxian roots). The necessities are produced to sustain the cogs in the machine, but the managers and manipulators can indulge in luxuries beyond rice or potatoes.
So the sovereign person has wealth to consume and waste at the expense of the vast majority. He consumes the “surplus of production” and does not in himself lead a productive life. This allows him to lead a life – Bataille’s emphasis – “beyond utility” (Bataille Share III, 198). The consumption of the sovereign one is at the expense of the energy and life force of those who have no choice but to produce. The production of that which is meant to have utility and create luxury for the exploiters is happily dumped time after time onto the shoulders of the majority. After all, where would we be without the expenditure of precious resources on Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, Porches, the killings made in stock/money exchanges, or on those ever so elusive breakfasts at Tiffany’s.
This glorious expenditure/exuberance/human loss to create wealth and items of luxury is facilitated through a hierarchical division of labour that confers a higher rank on the exploiter than those who have to subsist through work (which is regarded as lowly). Therefore, those who work are meant to be seen as degraded beings (Bataille Share III, 248). Veblen would agree with this in that the sovereign/leisure class are meant to be those who indulge in conspicuous activity that invidiously reveal their elitist status as compared to those who do not measure up (in terms of income/wealth and accumulated commodities) to themselves. Sometimes this is called meritocracy. But it is almost always called democracy.
Again to quote Land:
Fascism hates aliens, migrant workers, the homeless, rootless people of every kind and inclination, everything evocative of excitement and uncertainty, women, artists, lunatics, drifting sexual drives, liquids, impurity, and abandonment. (A Thirst for Annihilation)
Does the above description ring a bell? Look around you in the world today in Europe and the U.S.A., China, Russian, India…. its eerie how people rather than history repeat this tendency toward ancient forms of horror and fear, expulsion, exploitation, sacrifice, murder, mayhem… we are locked in our own false perfectionisms. Bounded by the unconscious death drive that seeks only its own expenditure in total annihilation and loss.
Do we see a diagnosis and a possible cure, as well? I’ll take that up in a future note…
- Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 2279-2289). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
- G. Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. III (Paris: Gallimard, 1976)