Learning to love what doesn’t exist: smart city fictions and technophilia

The city has long been a repository for the worst excesses of ideological sycophancy. We are cursed with nearly infinite examples of metaphorical form: the city is a system (Nick Land, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Sam Palmisano), the city is defined by flows (Eric Swyngedouw, Maria Kaika, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari), the city is an organic or human body (Patrick Geddes, Jose Luis Sert), as a computer (Paul Fedries, Sidewalk Labs), along with countless other novel (sub-)characterizations. It is unclear whether these contribute to or a reaction against sociology’s ambiguity about what a city actually is: is it to be defined spatially (as, quite literally, a bounded space riven with infrastructure), demographically (in terms of population density), municipally (if it’s called a city, it’s a city), or some combination of the three? These themes are well beyond the scope of this thesis to discuss; however it is important to note the epistemically messy arena into which the smart city enters.

Of these, it is perhaps the identification of the city with the body that has the most staying power—likely by virtue of the fact that its example is most vivid and ready to hand. The conceptualization appears in extended form in Plato’s Republic, in the famous analogy of the city and the soul: “The same account of justice must apply to both cities (justice is the right order of classes) and to individuals (justice is the right order of the soul)”. The body was, throughout antiquity, a model of the order of nature and a reflection of the impeccable logic of the cosmos: thus Plato’s “demand that the city be unified is identical to the demand that the body and its extensions” and as such “the soul is a unity in diversity and is strictly parallel to the city”. The city must correspond, in the Republic, to both moral and physical perfection of the body and the soul.

What then is to be made of Benjamin Bratton’s statement that the city to come is arriving, right now, and that it will appear as an “insane sentient garment” which is even now in production? “This clothing,” he tells us, “combines different kinds of artificial intelligence, embedded industrial sensors, very noisy data, tens of millions of metal and cement machines in motion or at rest, billions of handheld glass-slab computers, billions more sapient hominids, and a tangle of interweaving model abstractions of inputs gleaned from the above”. All told, this composes what Bratton refers to as a McLuhanesque prosthetic skin, a metaphorical universalization of the “largest sensory organ” of the human body. Technology surrounds and ensconces the body, stitching the contours of the flesh and the morphology of the city tighter until they are inseparable. It is worth noting here the similarities in Bratton’s metaphor of choice to a metaphor of technology present in Sigmund Freud, Marshall McLuhan, and Ernst Jünger: technology as a raiment of immense power—the prosthesis of divinity itself, extending the capacities of the human until they become godlike. What else could be the purpose of Bratton’s concatenated swirl of technological apparatus and flesh?

Of course, Bratton’s piece is not intended to be strictly a paean to techno-sensorial extension; his focus is (at least intended to be) urban in character. The city is a metaphor for life itself, for the materialization of lived experience. Specifically, he is speaking about the smart city—though he himself disagrees. He labels the skin-city-garment the “plasmic city”, which (in his view) differs from a smart city. The plasmic city, in his telling disrupts “cycles of residence, work, [and] entertainment of earlier eras” whereas the smart city only reifies these cycles in the service of “municipal omniscience and utility optimization”. While I agree with his sentiment—that the smart city stands to provide a technological glamer to traditional patterns of wealth accumulation, biopolitical domination, and force projection—Bratton can only realistically separate his plasmic city by invoking a limp, toothless political dimension which is neutered in its powers and has its scope arrested at the municipal level. If cities and their inhabitants were free, “rational actors” adrift upon the surface of the earth (if they were desiring-machines, manned by Turbo-Bessacines and Cyber-Gideons), he would be correct. But when actual politics becomes a consideration, the plasmic city loses its distinction from its smart cousin: what is controlling his subject-skin? By twisting it like a mobius strip (“A person is not only a Virtruvian actor at some phenomenological core who wears the city; he or she is worn as well. We are also the skin of what we wear”), Bratton tries hard to evade the questions of ownership, control, production, rehearsing a utopian cyberpunk non-political libertarianism which the freedom to share or accept information stands in for actual freedom. Skin becomes a technological platform, made up of “components and sub-components across applications”. Who owns that platform, and what are their intentions? What good is it to me that I wear and am worn by the city if our tangled skins are nevertheless held bunched in the collective fist of the old bourgeois masters, same as they have always been? How curious that liquification takes place through the addition of solidity, through an avalanche of ever more discrete sensorial artifacts!


The plasmic city prioritizes the total technologicization of urbanism above and beyond standard conceptualizations of the smart city. Bratton is a devotee of the Cult of the Black Box. In his (widely espoused) view, technology is a transhistorical force with empirical basis, and behaves gyroscopically across all of society to correct and re-orient towards progress. All that remains for us to do is to offer ourselves up for participation.


The plasmid city offers a fashionable reproach to critics (such as myself) who would perhaps detect in his pleas for greater technocratic extension mere libertarian ‘disruptionalism’ wearing an ethically vetted uniform. Bratton shifts the conversation from semio-technic music to a discussion of greater democracy by invoking the possibility of alternative “intelligences” that inhabit the plasmid city. “The presumption that of all the information-rich entities in the world,” Bratton admonishes, “the hominid brain should be the primary if not exclusive seat from which prostheses of AI would extend is based in multiple misrecognitions of what and where intelligence is. In such a circumstance, intelligence does not only radiate from us into the world, it already is in the world, and in the form of information (which is form) it is the world”. Bratton updates von Neumann by claiming not only will things self-replicate, but that they deserve citizenship by virtue of their capability of world-sensing and thus information-processing. Which is on the face of it, a fine preposition—and one I can’t particularly say that I disagree with. But what is the point? Do these non-hominid intelligences exist? Will they anytime soon? Bratton is not interested, rather preferring to espouse an agonistic Lebensphilosophie with the intention of making his argument purely ethical: ‘these fantastic chimeras’, he seems to say, ‘must at the same time be our equals’. Nowhere is it discussed that the only entities which would give us these are the economic and political institutions of the market and the state, and thus his non-hominid intelligences are just as flawed, if not the aggregate of all flaws, of the hominids themselves (one can’t help think of ‘corporate citizens’). Bratton’s individualism (here couched in democracy) is complete. Consider Lukács’ words to the ‘ethical’ socialists of his day:

“For the individual, whether capitalist or proletarian…the world can only be understood by means of a theory which postulates ‘eternal laws of nature’. Such a theory endows the world with a rationality alien to man and human action can neither penetrate nor influence the world if man takes up a purely contemplative and fatalistic stance.”

Bratton bends away from this accusation slightly. Instead of stating bluntly that the world is endowed with alien rationality, he proposes that at one day it should and might be, adopting a view to nature that may be more analogous with the maxim “if nature is unjust, change nature!” from the Xenofeminist Manifesto by Laboria Cuboniks, or a techno-centric wrinkle to Donna Haraway’s famous invitation to participate in “kin-making” or “kinning” (“kinship as a non-genealogical mode of relation that is based on response-ability and becoming-with, extending beyond Anthropos and humanist accounts of relationality”). He combines this with vitalism, smuggled in through the apolitical avenue of individual ethics which reimagines humanity as a lost particle drifting in a hostile, Hobbesian world. The plasmid city is a solipsism run amok, dressed in the thin tatters of radical self-knowledge (empirical vs. experiential) and the long-overdue attention in academia paid to the value of indigeneity and folkways. It mutates these genuine political concerns into a caricature.

Bratton performs a similar colonial compulsion: by demanding the extension of citizenship to as-yet-unseen non-hominid intelligences, his plasmid city is ordered as anti-politics: struggle is over, the politics will come later, and only then as the maximalization of communication. At the risk of being crass, maybe it is telling that Bratton analogically uses an unpigmented ‘skin’ as his sensorial organ of choice. The human race are trammeled into simple ‘hominids’ (a loose amalgamation of individuals with class, racial, gendered etc. identities removed) in order to be foreclosed on as a political subject. Plasmid city politics is for the new humans, and our job, according to Bratton, is to construct their agora. His declaration that the “hominid brain” must be cast down from prominence is an insidious political statement designed specifically in order to avoid answering whether that brain belonged to the oppressor or the oppressed, the colonizer or the colonized, and so on. His demand for an explosion of diversity first requires the collapse of existing diversity into a single monolith. It is only then, from a eugenic foundation, he can state his maxim: ‘If humanity must be dethroned to preserve the linearity of order, then so be it.’

Bratton’s plasmid city speaks, as I mentioned, to an as-yet ambiguous idea of urban improvement called the smart city. The smart city is still ambiguous because, despite toasts to its arrival, it has yet to appear—either as a new construction or as is more likely, a retrofit and uplift of an existing urban environment. It, just as much as Bratton’s ‘smart city to come’ or plasmid city, is first and foremost a utopian dream, an illusion of grandeur, a wish from the mind of a technocrat. As I mentioned, despite Bratton’s insistence on the difference between his plasmid city and the smart city, they are in fact modes of the same contemplative core, and the proponents of smartness set out with the plasmid city in mind at the end; the plasmid city is, in a sense, the smart city’s own future, representing the point at which it becomes total. The goal of the smart city is to totally command communication as such, and further to command everyday life. The city as it stands provides a template, but it must be modified extensively; life itself needs to change. That change will happen at the behest of a technological regime; and that the city is to be considered not as the site of anything but as terra nullius ready to receive a future politics.

The smart city, politically speaking, tries to insinuate itself into urban-municipal democratic processes, offering to make city running a question of management, to allow greater transparency, of to furnish better communication between residents, agencies, and services. In the plasmid city, the skin of technocommunication is the omega point of these tendencies (I get the idea that in this context total-communication is intended to terminate democratic participation as such). Further, the focus on technology, ecology, or democracy as their own transhistorical forces pushes the struggle out of the real city, away from the social-material realities of class, race, gender, and other prejudices. By chattering in pseudo-democratic language, the brutal relations experienced today are buried as much as possible under illusory calls for a fuller agonism. In this framework, power is reformulated as technical achievement, freedom as bandwidth, communication as the only imperative. It is an illusory position buttressed by science fiction technology let loose in an apolitical, experimental environment. These, when taken together, constitute a materialism not of the world but of a fever dream. Nothing more.

The Informational Mode of Development

Manuel Castells is perhaps Daniel Bell’s most forceful and celebrated acolyte—sharing with Bell a youthful Marxism that soured into inveterate liberal sycophancy and led to wide fame. At the time of the publication of the first (and most universally lauded) book of his seminal The Information Age trilogy of books, The Rise of the Network Society (note the structural parallels with Bell’s title), Castells was hailed not just for a new theoretical approach, but for reigniting sociology altogether: in a particularly fawning review, William Anderson notes critical reception has treated Castells as single-handedly saving sociology, leading to a “rebirth of sociology in its grand classical tradition” and saving the “queen of the sciences” from its state of “free fall”. He cites giants of the discipline such as Anthony Giddens, who claim that Castells’ work deserves to be hagiographically slotted in along the work of Max Weber and Karl Marx (comparing it directly to Weber’s landmark Economy and Society!), and makes further note of the extension of Castells’ work outside the academy, appearing in the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.


It is difficult at this juncture to not return to Thomas R. Bates’ discussion of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony and the role of hegemonic intellectuals, wherein “Civil society is the marketplace of ideas, where intellectuals enter as “salesmen” of contending cultures. The intellectuals succeed in creating hegemony to the extent that they extend the world view of the rulers to the ruled, and thereby secure the “free” consent of the masses to the law and order of the land” [emphasis mine]. Perhaps there is no better way to characterize Castells; similar to the way in which Bell proffered an escape route from the 1970s crisis, Castells repackages ruling class ideology as novel by trimming the dross and blunting the theoretical edge of capitalism’s weapons—all the while presenting himself as a proponent an European social-democratic ‘sober’ neo-, post-, non- or whatever x-Marxism which claims to have transcended Marxism, to have grown up and settled down. Anderson, though writing from a conservative-libertarian position, nevertheless is incisive in the question he poses to Castells: “does he simply peddle the same old sociology with a techno-twist that appeals to the new suburban bourgeoisie and to an academia fatigued by the pointlessness of postmodern scholarship?”


To the structure of Castells’ argument. Though it is remarkably similar to the sketch of the post-industrial society as offered by Bell, perhaps the strength of The Information Age is its employment of a vulgar Marxist sociology in order to give credence to its arguments. Where one gets the impression that Bell was writing a much more pragmatic, transductive text, Castells, writing two decades on, obtains the benefit of being enmeshed within the surface changes that Bell predicted. Commentator Frank Webster nicely summarizes Castells’ arguments across his landmark trilogy: firstly, that we live under the auspices of a “new structure of stratification” which centralizes “informational labour”, thus killing off both the ruling and the working classes of old—beginning, similar to Bell, with a claim that capitalism is dead. But Castells departs from this position to claim that what is actually at work within the post-industrial information age is the arrival of what he terms the “informational mode of development”, to be contrasted with the previous industrial mode. In Castells’ own words, the mode of development accompanies the Marxist mode of production, arising from the “the use of the means of production by the application of energy and knowledge”. To elaborate, “modes of development are the technological arrangements through which labor works on matter to generate the product, ultimately determining the level and quality of surplus”.


The mode of development, despite its courting of Marxist terminology and reliance upon Marxist concepts for its realization, nevertheless immediately is employed in order to define Castells’ supposed post-industrial, world-historical shift. He first establishes a largely agreed upon succession of temporal stages: first there was the agrarian mode of development, and secondly the industrial. He then continues: “In the new, informational mode of development,” Castells writes, “the source of productivity lies in the technology of knowledge generation, information processing, and symbol communication”. Further, he specifies that the informational mode of development derives wealth not from, as it did in the industrial mode, the “introduction of new energy sources, and in the ability to decentralize the use of energy throughout the production and circulation processes”, but in “the action of knowledge upon knowledge itself”.


This statement possesses a completely circular, tautological logic. By defining the mode of development as a feature over and above the mode of production, as aggregative of production in total, Castells is able to make what appears to be an airtight case that we have proceeded to a new age. His approach diminishes labor, industrial and otherwise, in favor of the category of “knowledge” which is simultaneously capable of taking action upon itself. What is the character of this action? In what way can his knowledge-subject perform upon its twinned knowledge-object? Castells labels this action “informational processing” which, in a “virtuous circle” is focused solely upon the improvement of the “technology of informational processing”. Later, he clarifies further: “the products of new information technology industries are information-processing devices or information processing itself”. Though he does not mention the concept, the formulation of knowledge working on knowledge takes off from Castells’ reification of Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” as developed in the Grundrisse.


Castells’ information age is, apparently, defined by a developmental mode freed from, if not material constraints altogether, than from the messy requirements of energy. In his cosmogeny, the passage from the industrial to the informational is contingent on the replacement of the primacy of energy in production with the primacy of autopoetic knowledge. Does this hold true? Of course not. One only needs to turn to recent discussions of fracking, the Keystone Pipeline, or various alternative energy technologies to see that energy concerns remain at the very heart of the production process. Further, to take Castells’ own technological considerations to heart, there is the problem that information does not come from anywhere; it cannot perform an “action” on itself without the energy investiture of existing and new networks of extraction and circulation. The energy expenditure of the internet, for example, was estimated in 2016 to be 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year, and has doubtlessly risen since. Castells’ insistence that knowledge is a demiurgic force—that inexplicably, wealth can be generated from nothing, from the mind itself—completely disregards the enormous consumption required to sustain the informational arena. That aforementioned 70 billion kwh is equivalent to the combined output of 8 nuclear power plants or double (as of 2016) the United States’ solar energy capacity. And, let’s not forget that energy generation is matched at the other end of the process by emissions: by 2020, it is projected that the energy usage of the combined internet will account for 3.5% of the world’s emissions, projected for a rise to 14% by 2040. In what is perhaps a further twist of the knife, the total combined power usage of bitcoin is projected to reach 48.16 terawatt-hours this year. Castells’ world of knowledge, the reaching of heaven through techno-brilliant autopoesis, cannot disentangle itself from energy and thus the sticky realities of the material, the infrastructural, the industrial. Informational-wealth is simply a clever sleight of hand, a wink and a trick, a wry twist of industrial-wealth into “something else” which wears an illusory “uniform” to obscure its character.


This is not to make a specific ecological argument against Castells; to do so would take too long. The intention here is simply to note that Castells, despite his Marxist pretentions, trips over himself as he rushes to hold his technocratic standard aloft. The new regime of total disintegration, in which knowledge consistently refines and reproduces itself in a technological manner, cannot be extracted from industrial mode of production by his own admission. His claim that energy concerns, that the messy tactility of the industrial mode of development, falls apart based on its own foundational principles. If the informational mode of development exists, it in no way can be claimed to be outside or apart from the industrial mode which has not been sublated or relegated in any way to history. The old, creaking industrial armature selectively enables informational development only as a particular, highly isolated aspect of what we may perhaps call a higher stage of industrial development; it represents a particular method of harnessing industrial surplus and externalizing not just its basal accumulations but also, by way of a vulgar “cyberspace ideology”, the entirety of the surplus altogether. Much as Europe constructed itself through a primitive accumulation which it has rendered invisible, knowledge qua knowledge colonizes industry, which is to say it colonizes labor, and proclaims that which sustains it effectively dead, or to have retreated from the world-historical stage. If Castells’ argument is at all relevant, it is only insofar as it describes the contingent historical development of today’s (petit) bourgeoisie—which have become “workers of the immaterial intellect”. In contrast, according to a recent paper on post-austerity Greece, 75% of surveyed households trade other essentials in order to have adequate heat in winter months.


It is clear that Castells’ network society is a reified fiction with no bearing on reality, outside of an exclusive coterie which he (again strip-mining the Marxist lexicon) refers to as the entrepreneurial class of knowledge workers, the masters of the new economy, those “manager-technocrats who “control” but do not “own” the means of production”. In effect, Castells resurrects Louis-Auguste Blanqui and his conspiratorial view on social change, in which a small and utterly devoted cadre would function as the vanguard party in making revolution for the entire working class. Castells would like to think his knowledge workers likewise do the same for all of humanity, sweeping both proletariat and bourgeoisie into the dustbin of history or metamorphosing elements of them into his controlling “white collar” class. This argument is not as novel as Castells would perhaps like it to be. His argument bears a startling similarity to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of labor intrinsic to the industrial form. “Taylorism” is defined by, among other things, the “decisive separation of a knowledgeable management from a knowledge-less workforce….of mental from manual labor”. Durkheim, likewise, notes that in the industrial division of labor, the individual is “no longer anything but an inert piece of machinery, only an external force set going which always moves in the same direction and in the same way”.


Durkheim hoped that the proletarian condition of machine-life was merely a transitory feature and the alienation then experienced was merely a transitional moment in the general development of the division of labor. Castells merely introduces a third pseudo-class by separating the powers of ownership and steersmanship over the means of production, leaving the first to the capitalist grand bourgeoisie and assigning the second to his informational class of petty bourgeoisie. All he has done is he has made the division of labor unworkable, has deepened the existing divisions until he can break the classes apart altogether and capitalist society itself disintegrates into the Castellian space of the network.


The Network Society offers soothsaying to the petit, or petty, bourgeoisie, who have found themselves utterly transformed, and attempts to be a travel guide to a class swept along a path which they do not understand. Lukács understood this was their station in history: “The petty bourgeoisie will only be able to play an active role in history as long as these objectives happen to coincide with the real economic interests of capitalism”. This pseudo-class casts about for clarification on its position, scared as it is, and finds the objects of its sycophancy (the “grand bourgeois”) mute and strangely powerless. “The position held by the capitalist class,” Lukács clarifies, referring to the whole and unreconstituted bourgeois class without Castells’ illusory distinction, “and the interests which determine its actions ensure that it will be unable to control its own system of production even in theory”. There is not a soul that isn’t flying blind—the market remains chaotic, despite the much-needed injection of ‘knowledge’. Castells tries desperately to offer sense, an emergent logic, to the latest permutation of an inherently unstable system, and at the end is in fact able to do so—but only at reality’s expense. He must first redefine society, must establish the precise, contingent conditions in which his sociology works and offers a scientific assessment of society. In so doing, Castells employs the same shadowy trick which Lukács identifies almost 80 years earlier: “They seek refuge in the methods of natural science, in the way in which science distills ‘pure’ facts and places them in the relevant contexts by means of observation, abstraction and experiment”. An abstraction which becomes a tautology: the network society, founded on the principles Castells lays out, of course conforms perfectly to his supposedly empirical assessment. This is only by virtue of his ability to command and define the limits of the experimental field, which he claims is world-historical society but is in fact an economic pseudo-class. “The ‘pure’ facts of the natural sciences arise when a phenomenon of the real world is placed (in thought or in reality) into an environment where its laws can be inspected without outside interference. This process is reinforced by reducing the phenomena to their purely quantitative essence. to their expression in numbers and numerical relations”.


Daniel Bell and the fiction of post-industrialism

What does post-industrial mean? Of course, answering this question requires first answering what industrial means, but this does not tell the entire story. I will concern myself solely with the post-industrial, as in it I identify something of a semiotic container which contains subsequent periodizations and proposed epochal shifts of a socio-technological nature: the Information Age, the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Digital (or Third) Industrial Revolution, semiocapitalism/cognitive capitalism, surveillance capitalism, and the Anthropocene, to name just a few. (If there’s one thing to be sure of, the declaration of new historical eras seems to be profitable for one’s academic prospects, if nothing else.) It is my position that the declaration of the post-industrial necessarily preconditions or is isomorphic with all the above epochal shifts in that it is a subject without an object, a form without an object, a fabricated truth that attempts in the first instance to provide handholds and propulsive force to the societal totality. It is worth noting here that the only thing that can be said to discursively challenge this expansive definition of the post-industrial in terms of planetary-historical ramifications may be neoliberalism—which, I will argue later, effectively can be viewed as the political-bourgeois manifestation of a post-industrial weltanschauung insofar it is isolable at all. And above it all, the post-industrial age is itself a phantasm, just another tactic of capital’s spectacular tendency towards naturalization (particularly, post-industrialism’s insistence on its own Pyrhhic victory, making is so “old debates about capitalism and socialism are increasingly irrelevant”), and a specific reaction to political unrest and the collapse of the Euro-American economic base. (Lasch 1973) However, I will use the term—though with some distaste, and for the purposes of analysis only.


Even in the triumphalist, reactionary circles which spawned post-industrialism as process/product, there is significant disagreement with the specifics of the post-industrial age: when it began, what it entails, and so on. That said, Daniel Bell’s 1974 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is largely taken to be the touchstone of this new designation, and Bell as its prophet, having popularized Alain Touraine’s phrase from a few years prior. Bell’s sketch of post-industrialism’s anticipated social form has some generic features, including the change “from a goods-producing economy to a service economy, the centrality of theoretical knowledge for innovation, the change in the character of work, from a game against nature and a game against fabricated nature to a game between persons”.[1] In the face of this description, Bell’s caveat that “A post-industrial society cannot provide a transcendent ethic….” almost goes without needing to be said.[2] I follow from Christopher Lesch’s assertion, in his review of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society for The New York Review of Books, that Bell’s declaration of the dawn of the post-industrial age is ageless, predicated on not just various other thinkers but also Bell’s own essays predating his book by 15 years. Of course, the novelty of Bell’s work is not at stake. What is, however, of immense importance, is the fact that the concept of the post-industrial has come not to inform but to dominate: power functions in a post-industrial manner, bearing in mind Marx’s statement that theory which gains material form by gripping the masses. However, in a grotesque perversion, the masses are made to dance, as ever, to the steps provided by an elite that styles itself as post-industrial: post-industrialism, along with any epochal designation more broadly, does not exist outside the minds and actions of power. Beyond any discussions of the service economy, innovation, or development of work’s character, it is simply a social-economic relation—specifically one of hierarchical power.


By choosing to remain oblivious to both the primacy of social-economic relations insofar as they constitute the totality of society, Bell could not help himself but to “rebel” (if you could call it that) against what he perceived as the monomyths of both a vulgarized Marxist “econocentricism” and a functionalist-positivist moral standard. “Marxists,” Bell wrote, “believe that the society is unified through the mode of production; functionalists believe that society is integrated through a common value system. Neither view, I believe, is adequate to explain certain contradictions in contemporary society”.[3] Bell positions his own account of the disunity of society specifically against Lukács’ totality, as an alternative view, thus begging the question (where did the perceived atomization come from?) and then seeking to plot out the ramifications of a social metaphysic of his own construction.


Bell placing his own account of the post-industrial in relation to the totality opens up a particularly withering line of critique by Lukács from History and Class Consciousness, bound up in his own definition of what the totality is—a heuristic by which to observe and comprehend the fitful interaction and laws of motion of capitalist society in toto. To begin, Lukács draws out Marx’s statement: “The relations of production of every society form a whole”.[4] This is also where Bell begins, and which he turns aside in favor of a fitful plurality defined by contradiction (it is to Bell’s paltry credit that he can detect these). Lukács goes on, admitting that “This dialectical conception of totality seems to have put a great distance between itself and reality, it appears to construct reality very ‘unscientifically’”.[5] However, the unscientific appearance of the totality is only when juxtaposed against bourgeois “royal science”: “The rightness of this view [of the totality] only emerges with complete clarity when we direct our attention to the real, material substratum of our method, viz. capitalist society with its internal antagonism between the forces and the relations of production [emphasis mine].”


So—Lukács’ totality is not a monomyth at all, but rather a method by which to collapse the above and the below, the macro and the micro, into a subject of analysis which nevertheless does not eliminate contradiction so as to construct a closed, teleological system. Bell’s own claim that Post-Industrial Society is an attempt to reckon with “changes in the social structure” falls flat, as by his own admission that, yes, his analysis comes with gaping holes and contradictions of its own. (When pressed on his claim that the promotion of knowledge to a primary role in production characterizes post-industrial society and thus “makes the university a central site” fails to take into account geopolitical intelligence regimes such as the CIA, he can only say that “there are many devils in a devilish world, but those kitchen sinks belong in another room, and please keep them there”. It is here that the true value of the totality becomes clear, as a method of working with and through contradiction. What in Bell’s fetishistic science appears as the limit of its logic and a space in which the goalposts must be moved back could be and in fact is resolved easily by an understanding of the totality as a gestalt. Contradictions are not overwhelmed or transcended; contradictions belong to the nature of capitalist reality. These contradictions are constantly shifting and transitory—they are themselves conditional to the particular, peculiar logic of capitalism itself.


By synthesizing his post-industrial framework, Bell has made an ideological argument that not only seeks to provide a gloss for capitalism’s inherently contradictory structure, but further performs a crude sleight of hand by admitting that capitalism’s relations are conditional (in a vulgar theodicy: industrialism is dead, long live capitalism!) while at the same time promising that capitalism in itself is “predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason”. Post-industrialism, in Bell’s view, happened to capitalism—not the other way around; it reigns supreme, indomitable, and the most Bell can humbly do is take its pulse and try to paper over its excesses and its crises. Thus, the problem of accumulation and the annihilation of urban fixed capital in the 60s and 70s becomes a promising pivot towards a world in which neither matters, where value can be conjured out of thin air.

[1] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[2] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[3] (Bell and Lasch, An Exchange on Post-Industrial Society 1974)

[4] The Poverty of Philosophy

[5] (Lukács n.d.)