Bernard Stiegler, The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, trans. Daniel Ross, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2011. 200 pp., £55.00 hb., £16.99 pb., 978 0 74564 809 5 hb., 978 0 74564 810 1 pb.

Bernard Stiegler’s work addresses the relationship between philosophy, technology and culture. This combination has proved popular, and has been furthered by Stiegler’s impressive output: he has produced no fewer than thirty books in the last two decades, eight of which have been translated into English. His celebrated Technics and Time is still growing – a fourth volume is forthcoming – and The Decadence of Industrial Democracies is the first part of another such series (the book was first published in France in 2004; its two currently untranslated companion volumes appeared in 2006). The latter series is collectively titled Disbelief and Discredit, and it addresses a familiar problematic – the degree to which technology has assisted capitalism in moulding and degrading culture – but it sets those issues within the framework of Stiegler’s philosophy, thus offering a novel perspective upon them. Stiegler’s claims are, however, marked by an effectively classless view of capitalism that undermines the book’s critical analysis, and that leads him, ultimately, to present a set of very questionable political prescriptions.

This is a dense book, and it assumes that its readers are already familiar with its author’s work. Stiegler relies throughout on terms and concepts that he has developed in earlier texts, and the book’s explanatory endnotes frequently direct readers towards other elements of his impressive œuvre. In consequence,those anglophone readers seeking an overview of his position might turn instead to his For a New Critique of Political Economy (2010): a book that rehearses the primary themes of The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, but that does so with greater concision, exposition and clarity. Nonetheless when stripped of their baroque terminology, Stiegler’s arguments are in essence quite simple: capitalism’s continual need to engender new demands and markets has led to the rationalization of consumer desire, impoverishing the latter; this tendency has been furthered by the increasing digitization of technology, which lends itself to the ever more minute calculation and control of the everyday, and which has fostered a politically disabling nihilism, and a loss of faith in the notions of community and collective identity that society requires if it is to be steered away from economic and environmental disaster. Stiegler, however, maintains that an alternative social order is possible, and that the contemporary confluence of economics, technology and culture can be redirected towards a better future.

Framed in this way, the book’s contentions echo those of many Marxist writers. For example, Negri and the Situationists come to mind when Stiegler talks of the cybernetic control of desire and the redirection of society’s technological capacities; his comments on the culture industries also frequently recall Adorno and Horkheimer. Stiegler’s conclusions do, however, differ significantly from those of what might broadly be termed Marxism, as he ultimately takes an essentially reformist perspective. The question thus arises as to whether the philosophical framework with which he handles these issues necessarily lends itself to such a view.

Stiegler employs a model of cultural memory based around what he calls primary, secondary and tertiary modes of retention: primary retention corresponds to the experience of the passage of time, secondary retention to memory, and tertiary retention to the externalization of memory and experience in technical and cultural forms. Borrowing from Simondon he claims that those forms shape and are shaped by society’s processes of ‘psychic and collective individuation’, and, drawing on Derrida, terms the system of techniques by which societies order and reproduce those forms ‘grammatization’. The problematic sketched above is located within this model as follows: contemporary tertiary retention and the individuation processes enacted through it have become dominated by a harmful mode of grammatization fostered by consumerism’s rationalization of desire; this has rendered technology and culture a means of cybernetic control, and has thereby arrested the individuation process. However, as grammatization is an inevitable aspect of any society, and as no technology is inherently harmful, Stiegler contends that one should not abstractly reject industrial capitalism: instead, it needs to be redirected towards forms that will be less damaging to society’s processes of individuation.

This in itself may not be incompatible with Marxism; one could perhaps propose that Marx himself thought it possible to alter his society’s individuation process by changing its system of grammatization. Yet Stiegler maintains that grammatization should be understood as a Derridean pharmakon – as something that can be both poison and cure – and as our contemporary mode of grammatization is capitalism, Stiegler argues that our politics should aim at rendering capitalism itself the cure to our ills. We should thus attempt instead to give it a cultural ‘jumpstart’ (sursaut): to kick it into a different, more satisfactory gear, and thereby to reinitiate its processes of collective individuation. Consequently, whilst warning of the dangers of a revolution against capitalism (its demise would ‘inevitably result both in innumerable wars that would immediately become global, and in immense chaos, if not indeed in the disappearance of the human species’), Stiegler in effect advocates a revolution of capitalism.

This position is further supported by his Nietzschean complaints about oppositional political perspectives. The cynicism and loss of faith said to characterize the malaise of contemporary decadence are described as a form of ressentiment towards contemporary technics, and Stiegler contends that one cannot combat them by creating further ressentiment qua class struggle. Against such reactivity, he advocates ‘reconstructing a libidinal economy (a philia)’. This project does not require an exploited social class to oppose an antagonistic other; for in so far as our present crisis derives from the collapse of faith, meaning and trust, it is in effect a crisis of the ‘spirit’. Consequently, the ‘weighty task’ of responding to our present predicament falls first on society’s ‘intellectuals’, as by critically appealing to existing political structures and by employing the so-called creative industries these ‘thinkers, savants, artists, philosophers and other clerics’ can restore faith in society and community, thereby rendering capitalism’s ‘technical mutation’ a viable possibility.

This is ultimately a call for social and cultural responsibility, and it can be seen to be rooted in Stiegler’s philosophical anthropology. His work addresses the interrelated becoming of the human and the technical, and it seems that the history of that becoming is not motivated by class struggle, but rather by the Freudian interplay of a ‘life drive’ towards belief and the constitution of meaning, and a ‘death drive’ towards order, repetition and bare existence. The interaction of the two drives generates individuation through grammatization, although the dominance of either can bring that process to a halt. Stiegler is thus able to claim that capitalism, with its impulse towards the calculation and rationalization of desire, brings a ‘tendency that inhabits every psyche’ to a ‘planetary level’. By extension, he is also able to contend that it would be a mistake to attempt that tendency’s eradication; ‘there is’, he claims, ‘still something Christian’ in Marxism. Yet Stiegler himself is not without moralism. In developing these positions he uses Aristotle’s On the Soul to contend that the noetic psyche, which he links to the rationale of cultural discourse, is always capable of falling back into mere sensitivity, or rather into crass sensationalism: a possibility that otium (which in Stiegler’s usage pertains to the constitution of meaning above and beyond factical existence) might collapse into negotium. The role of culture – which Stiegler defines as ‘care’ – is to prevent this from happening.

These views may well lend themselves to the naturalization of contemporary modes of subjectivity, and indeed to a tacit conservatism (arguably highlighted in Stiegler’s recent comments on the exposure of contemporary youth to a toxic mass culture), but the most serious issue here is the contradiction that Stiegler’s political position seems to entail. On the one hand, the crisis of contemporary capitalism stems from the degree to which its demand for profit fosters the rationalization of desire; on the other, we are told, in For a New Critique of Political Economy, that a better capitalism could lead us to a ‘renaissance of desire’, and that it would be compatible with an ‘economy of contribution’. Consequently, and despite Stiegler’s concern with the avoidance of oppositional dualities, his arguments result in a particularly problematic pairing: namely, a preference for ‘good’ capitalism over ‘bad’ capitalism.

This is rendered possible by Stiegler’s apparent disregard for the notion that social antagonism might be intrinsic to capital’s very conditions of existence; such conflict is largely removed from his account through the ostensibly radical but ultimately empty gesture of expanding the proletariat (the latter now encompasses society, as all individuals have been alienated from the savoir-vivre enabled by contemporary technics). His arguments thus imply a ‘spiritual’ redemption of capitalism that will leave its bases untouched: a redemption that will somehow reunite society with its alienated technical capacities, but that will do so without actually combating the system of value that led to that separation in the first place.

My comments here are not aimed against the pragmatism of Stiegler’s interest in social democracy, or indeed against his legitimate concerns regarding the consequences of capitalism’s demise. Nor are they to suggest that the book is without merit, as there are undoubtedly a host of issues connected to the interplay between culture, economics and technology that remain neglected within the work of more explicitly Marxist theorists. Yet whilst his analysis may contain insights, his prescriptions are coloured by his disregard for capitalism’s own disinterest in qualitative difference vis-à-vis its need for quantitative profit (for example, his dubious contention that the capitalism of Europe might constitute a bulwark to the dangerous effects of American culture). The result is a politics that is certainly suited to cultural studies – it in fact places that discipline in a pivotal position – but that is ultimately far too compatible with the empty notions of ‘responsible’ capitalism so frequently invoked by our contemporary politicians.