Bartleby’s Occupation: “Passive Resistance” Then and Now
When the narrator of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” remarks, “nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” the reader cannot help but think of Henry David Thoreau.1 And indeed, one line of “Bartleby” criticism, beginning with a 1945 essay by Egbert Oliver and extending to contemporary critics like Michael Rogin and Brook Thomas, without claiming categorically that Melville had read Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” nonetheless regards the short story as an extension of or, alternatively, a parody of the anti-authoritarian argument of the essay.2 What these (otherwise very different) critical interpretations have in common is that they ultimately regard Bartleby and Thoreau as resisting a version of the same thing, described variously as “society,” “social institutions” or “the social system.” In my view, however, these terms collapse an important distinction between two kinds of social “institution”—the market and the state—that is fundamental to understanding the nature of Bartleby’s resistance and its difference from Thoreau’s.
The distinction has more than literary-critical significance, given the fact that “Bartleby” has achieved a new notoriety, beyond its perennial presence in college survey courses and literary journals—though, properly speaking, this newfound notoriety should be attributed to the enigmatic individual at the heart of Melville’s text rather than to the text itself. Bartleby has arguably become the avatar for leftist political resistance—to both market and state—in recent years. I refer here to the dual phenomena of political theorists like Agamben, Hardt and Negri and Žižek invoking Bartleby as a figure for a radical politics, and Occupy Wall Street’s adoption of Bartleby (the original “occupier”) as an unofficial mascot.3 Indeed, these phenomena are not unrelated, since the event known as “Occupy Wall Street” cannot be separated from its various interpretations—which is to say on the one hand that the question of what it meant is at least as important as the question of what it did, and on the other that, as the Occupy movement continues to evolve, the question of what it does seems increasingly to reflect an account of what it means supplied in part by Hardt and Negri and Žižek.
I begin with the literary-critical argument, however. To put that argument in its bluntest possible form, while Thoreau resists the state in the name of the market, Bartleby resists the market in the name of the state. More precisely, the society Thoreau describes and to which his resistance is directed is imagined very differently from the society described in “Bartleby”: the former is a society dominated by the state, the latter is a society dominated by the market. One implication of this interpretation is that it becomes problematic to describe Bartleby’s resistance as civil disobedience. This is not only because his resistance is directed at a private employer rather than at the state. I want to suggest that, in the market-dominated social world described in “Bartleby,” the notion of political resistance, and perhaps even of the “political” itself, starts to look tenuous. For Thoreau, political resistance does at least have a clear object—the state—and a clear justification—the individual’s sovereign authority. Somewhat paradoxically, then, imprisonment in the Concord jail for Thoreau does not represent a curtailment of his liberty, but its more perfect realization: “The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.”4 To stand inside the prison, for Thoreau, is to stand outside the state. The market world Bartleby inhabits, on the other hand, is one in which preferences rather than principles are what matter; thus Bartleby resists by mobilizing the language—the only available one—of preference to subvert that world from the inside. Ultimately, I will argue, this subversion is motivated by a desire for the kind of society (one with a strong state) that Thoreau assumes already exists—a society that, in “Bartleby,” is represented by the prison itself.
What I mean by a “strong state” here is what we might call an interventionist state, a concept that only makes sense if one assumes the existence of a discrete realm of reality in which the state can intervene. Michel Foucault situates the emergence of laissez-faire liberalism within the history of what he calls governmentality: the attempt to coordinate state power, the economic management of the population, and individual self-discipline as elements of a total “art of government.”5 According to Foucault, laissez-faire emerged as a reaction to the philosophy of raison d’état, which assumed that the scope of governmental intervention in the life of the population was essentially unlimited, and therefore required the development of ever more intricate and intimate mechanisms of administrative and police power. Liberal political economy’s answer to this progressive expansion of state power was to define a zone that was off-limits—both in a descriptive and normative sense—to the state: namely, the market.6
It is a striking but often overlooked fact that, running through Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government”—which many would consider to be the most comprehensive and direct statement of his political principles—is a defense of economic liberalism. Perhaps this is due to the ironic tone of Thoreau’s references to free trade; it is important to note, however, that the irony is not directed at the idea of laissez-faire as such, but rather at the fact that laissez-faire does not go far enough. On the other hand, the essay contains several unambiguous statements of Thoreau’s commitment to this philosophy: there is perhaps a hint of hyperbole but no irony in the statement that government is “at best but an expedient,” but is at its “most expedient” when “the governed are most let alone by it.”7
Yet, at the same time, it seems difficult to square this Thoreau with the Thoreau of Walden, the Thoreau who coins aphorisms like “the thoughtful man becomes a hermit in the thoroughfares of the marketplace”8—the Thoreau, in short, who sounds a lot like Bartleby, retiring to his “hermitage” to escape the corruptions of Wall Street. Certainly, one could attribute the difficulty of pinning down Thoreau’s political views to the author’s semantic playfulness, a characteristic that has attracted interest and praise from post-structuralist critics in the past few decades. I want to suggest, however, that this ambiguity is not simply amorphousness but has a determinate structure, and moreover, that this is also true of Melville’s tale, which has been similarly celebrated in post-structuralist circles for its apparent refusal of meaning. In Thoreau’s case, the ambiguity results from what might be described as a critique of capitalism as a mode of production, combined inextricably with an affirmation of its legitimating ideology. In Melville’s case, the ambiguity results from the question of what, exactly, Bartleby is resisting. Economic criticism of the text has tended to go in two directions: either Bartleby is an alienated worker taking a stand against oppression, or he is, as Gillian Brown puts it, an agoraphobic, in the literal meaning of the term as “fear of the marketplace.”9 These two alternatives might not look like alternatives at all, and indeed, some critics (like Michael Gilmore) have elided the distinction between the two, treating resistance to capitalism and resistance to the market as essentially equivalent.10 I want to suggest, however, that firstly, they are not equivalent, and secondly, with regard to Melville’s story, both readings are right, but they can’t both be right at the same time. The ambiguity of “Bartleby,” in fact, has the same structure as that of Thoreau’s work: it derives from the gap—what Žižek would call the “parallax view”—between the point of view of labor and the point of view of the commodity, between production and “the market” (“the market” being an ideological formation within capitalism, the story that capitalism tells itself about itself).
This “parallax gap” is inscribed in the very structure of a story Melville penned shortly after “Bartleby.” Consisting of two juxtaposed sketches, “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” contrasts the life of leisure and refinement enjoyed by lawyers in London’s Temple Bar with the body- and soul-destroying drudgery endured by female workers in a New England paper mill. The narrator intuits some connection—an “inverted similitude”—between the two scenes, but struggles to reconcile them: “Though the two objects did by no means completely correspond, yet this partial inadequacy but served to tinge the similitude not less with the vividness than the disorder of a dream.”11 The bipartite structure of the tale itself (as well as its title, which suggests that no “marriage” of the sketches’ imaginative visions is possible) emphasizes this irreconcilability. It is important to note, however, that the irreconcilability does not arise simply from the contrast between wealth and poverty, or even between capital and labor: the relationship between the lawyers and mill workers is not one of capitalist and worker. Indeed, the lawyers in the first sketch are depicted primarily as consumers, insofar as they are depicted as agents at all; anticipating Marx’s description of the commodity-form in Capital, Melville endows the commodities the lawyers consume with a life of their own (the various courses of the dinner the narrator attends are imagined as military maneuvers, with the proffered delicacies—rather than the would-be “Knights Templars”—acting as the troops). Ultimately, then, the narrator’s—and Melville’s—difficulty in reconciling the two scenes stems not from the social division between labor and capital as such, but, once again, from the gap (a kind of blind spot) between the point of view of production and the point of view of the market. Appropriately, the commodity that the mill workers produce and that the lawyers consume, which therefore provides a tenuous link between the two sketches, is blank paper.
Similarly, to view Bartleby simply as a victim of capitalist exploitation is to diminish the structural ambiguity at the heart of Melville’s story of Wall Street. To be sure, Melville invites such a reading—not only, as numerous critics have suggested, in his depiction of the lawyer’s rationalization of capitalist social relations, but also in subtle references to the contemporaneous critique of “wage slavery” originating from Jacksonian Democrats, labor activists and Southern defenders of the (supposedly more humane) institution of chattel slavery.12 The ambiguous socio-economic position of the white Northern wage worker is signaled by the office’s location between two walls, one the “white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft,” the other “black by age and everlasting shade”;13 other allusions to slavery are the narrator’s reference to prosperous crowds “sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway” and his description of Bartleby as a “bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic.”14 And while a scrivener is not the most obvious choice as a representative of “wage slavery,” adherents of the Bartleby-as-exploited-worker thesis point out that the nature of his work—monotonous, non-creative, even potentially injurious—provides as much cause for discontent as any factory job.15
To make Bartleby a representative of “labor” in general, however, is to miss the importance of Bartleby’s status as not only a white but a white-collar employee. Structurally, Bartleby is a member of the proletariat, but culturally, he might be regarded as a representative neither of labor or capital but of an emergent “middle class”: a term that was just beginning to come into popular usage around the time of Bartleby’s publication.16 Though Melville does not use the term, it is striking that it seems to have entered the cultural lexicon at almost the same moment as the discourse of class antagonism exemplified by the protests against wage slavery (which, despite their too-easy conflation of wage labor and chattel slavery, were often quite sophisticated in their analysis of the relation between labor and capital). One might say that, as economic inequality and, with it, class antagonism became more apparent in the Northern states, the appeal of the idea of the middle class was that it redescribed class as merely a differential (rather than an antagonistic) relation, thus segregating its “economic” from its “political” content. Furthermore, as Stuart Blumin notes, the slipperiness of the notion of the middle class (and thus the difficulty it presents for historians who, like Blumin himself, attempt to investigate its existence) stems from the fact that what gives the “class” its unity is as much a set of cultural values as a socio-economic position, and, moreover, that those values include an attachment to an atomistic worldview that precludes the very notion of class.17
Viewed from this perspective—which is to say, from the perspective of the parallax view that separates the structural notion of class from its self-negation as a culture of individual enterprise—Bartleby’s occupation seems far from accidental. The tale begins with the narrator expressing a literary interest in Bartleby’s professional demographic, “an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners.”18 Bartleby is essentially a clerk, and as several historians have recently noted, clerks played a unique social and economic role in the “market revolution” of the nineteenth-century US.19 As Michael Zakim puts it: “it was the clerk who effectively administered all the new markets in the new market society.”20 The description is certainly appropriate to Bartleby’s occupation: though the title of legal clerk might suggest a non-commercial function, it is clear that the lawyer’s (and by extension, Bartleby’s) “business” as a “conveyancer and title hunter” consists precisely in the circulation of property.21 Furthermore, as Zakim notes, clerks not only administered, but embodied this circulation: the desire for social mobility that characterized these ambitious young men meant that “[their] very impermanence mimicked the perpetuum mobile of the commodity exchange they had come to the city to administer.”22 Clerks recognized that the most valuable commodity they could trade in the marketplace (their labor) resided in themselves—was, in fact, inseparable from the self. They therefore subscribed to an ethos of self-determination and self-perfection exemplified in the popular literature directed toward enterprising young men: a genre that included such edifying guides to moral conduct as Franklin’s autobiography and Henry Ward Beecher’s Lectures to Young Men, as well as more functional guides to business success such as Hints to Young Tradesmen, and Maxims for Merchants.23 The personal diaries of clerks from the period display a similar concern with this project of self-cultivation in the name of social and economic advancement: the young men whose diaries are the subject of Thomas Augst’s The Clerk’s Tale “accounted for their personal experience as a kind of capital, a means of owning the self in a fluid social world.”24
These texts present a vision of the self with which Thoreau, of course, might very well have sympathized. While condemning the accumulation of property as a threat to political virtue (and as an unstable possession, liable to seizure by the state), Thoreau praises property in self as the basis of moral economy: “You must live within yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs.”25 Bartleby’s self-reliance is of a rather different nature, however. Social mobility was the watchword of the ambitious clerk: as one clerk put it, “there is no such thing as a stationary point in human endeavor.”26 Bartleby is the antithesis of this entrepreneurial ethos. In a social world that places a premium on mobility and impermanence—on “extra vagance” (sic), to use one of Thoreau’s favored expressions27—and as a member of a professional class that, more than any other, embodies those values, Bartleby is resolutely stationary.
This, of course, makes his arrest for vagrancy doubly ironic. And not incidentally, this is the point at which the state inserts itself into the narrative economy of Bartleby. As I have suggested, Melville would not have had to search hard for anti-capitalist arguments.28 As I have also suggested, however, Bartleby’s resistance takes the form not of a protest against the injustices of capitalism but of a withdrawal from the instabilities of the market. If resistance to capitalism and resistance to the market are not the same thing, where, then, could Melville find a model of the latter? My suggestion is that he found this model in the prison reform literature of the period.
As historian David Rothman has demonstrated, this reformist discourse was largely motivated by anxieties about the shift away from a stable, hierarchical social order to a society characterized by fluid social and economic relations. The emergence of the “institution” (the penitentiary, the almshouse, the asylum and so forth) can therefore be understood as a response to the instabilities of a market-driven society—instabilities that were regarded as producing various forms of “deviancy,” including crime, pauperism and insanity. The institution was imagined as an artificial environment that would serve both to reform its inmates by insulating them from the dangers and allurements of the world outside its walls and to provide a kind of model of ideal social organization. Nostalgic for the social stability of the colonial past, but adopting distinctly “modern” disciplinary methods borrowed from the military barracks and the factory, the designers of the nineteenth-century institution of reform aimed to reconstitute “a social order in which men knew their place.”29
Central to the program of penal reform was the idea that inmates had to be isolated from pernicious influences originating both inside and outside the prison walls. Thus prisons like New York State’s Sing-Sing were constructed with separate cells for each prisoner, while inmates’ contact with friends and family members was severely limited.30 As one Sing-Sing chaplain put it, “[t]he prisoner was taught to consider himself dead to all without the prison walls,” while the warden assured new arrivals that they were to be “literally buried from the world.”31 Despite its nickname, the Tombs (the New York City prison where Bartleby is confined), as Melville was no doubt aware, was quite unlike Sing-Sing in this regard: the prison was well known for its overcrowded cells, frequent escapes, and generally lax discipline.32 For penal reformers, therefore, the Tombs was an example of the deficiencies of the prison system rather than a model institution: Dorothea Dix described it as “that most corrupting city-prison…where hundreds congregate, and communicate and receive evil influences continually.”33 Certainly, Melville’s depiction of the Tombs is hardly suggestive of the quasi-militaristic discipline characteristic of Sing-Sing, but neither is it the mob scene portrayed by Dix. Rather, the narrator encounters Bartleby in a setting characterized by silence and isolation, and sealed off from the world outside its walls: “The yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them.”34 Melville’s Tombs, so it would appear, does indeed live up to its sobriquet (even before Bartleby’s death makes the name a literal description).
For Bartleby, then, imprisonment represents a welcome respite from the perpetual motion of the market (in prison, immobility is a virtue). Here Bartleby knows where he stands: “I know where I am,” he tells the lawyer.35 In this respect, however, it is necessary to distinguish Bartleby, the character, from “Bartleby,” the text, which reveals the former’s optimism to be naïve. His naïveté is exposed with the appearance of the entrepreneurial “grub-man,” who makes a profit by providing superior fare to those prisoners whose friends can afford to pay for it. Even the sanctified space of the prison, it would appear, cannot escape the contagion of market forces (an impression reinforced by the pun in the grub-man’s observation that the infamous criminal Monroe Edwards “died of consumption at Sing-Sing”36). Melville’s point is borne out historically not only by the fact that (as Rothman notes) such abuses did indeed take place in even the most advanced nineteenth-century prisons, but also, in a more recent context, by the increasing privatization of prisons and their re-conception as profit-making ventures. From this perspective, we could say that, while Bartleby looks forward—optimistically—to the invention of the “providential” state, “Bartleby” looks forward—pessimistically—to the advent of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism reverses the relationship of state and market that mid-nineteenth century prison reformers imagined and that would eventually take shape in progressivist and welfare state versions of interventionism: as Foucault puts it, neoliberalism envisions “a state under the supervision of the market rather than a market supervised by the state.”37
Thoreau, on the other hand, anticipates another central aspect of the neoliberal worldview. Something like Thoreau’s vision of the self-governing individual is a necessary supplement to the diminished role of government that neoliberals imagine. As Foucault notes, US neoliberalism challenged conventional economic analyses (both Smith’s and Marx’s) of labor with its redescription of the worker in terms of “human capital.” The nineteenth-century perception of labor as a form of saleable “property” was given a new twist: this property was redescribed as a form of capital, defined as “everything that in one way or another can be a source of future income.” As labor is redescribed as a form of capital, the laborer is redescribed as an investor. As Foucault summarizes, “from the worker’s point of view [these economists argue,] labor comprises a capital, that is to say, it is an ability, a skill…it is a ‘machine.’”38 Neoliberalism regards the individual’s life as a “permanent and multiple enterprise” in which the individual acts as “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.”39
In this sense, neoliberal principles resonate with the ambitions of nineteenth-century clerks, as well as with Thoreau’s transcendental individualism. Thoreau may have criticized the conversion of the “laboring man” into a “machine,”40 but the force of the criticism depends on his definition of the “laboring man” as one who labors for others (whether employers or customers) rather than one who labors on himself, for himself. As Zakim puts it, “[For Thoreau,] man himself would be the end—and no longer just the means—of labor. The modern production project, that is to say, would be devoted to producing one’s self, which now accordingly became the most important form of property in a liberal regime, namely, property in oneself, or self-possession.”41 For Thoreau, then, as for the neoliberal theorists of human capital, the art of government is primarily an art of self-government: the most efficient political economy is ultimately an “economy of living,”42 an economy of the self.
At the same time, however, the notion of “resistance to civil government” becomes problematic with the advent of neoliberalism. For, when the neoliberal state has been absorbed by the market, how is it possible to resist it? Or, to put the question in a simpler form, how does one “resist” the market (essentially, the question posed by “Bartleby”)? Neoliberalism, of course, has no interest in answering this question; its account of political resistance is not resistance to the market, but resistance in the market. In other words, resistance itself essentially becomes privatized, as political principles find their primary expression in market preferences. Concerned about the environment? Buy a hybrid car. Don’t approve of NAFTA? Buy your t-shirts at American Apparel. This logic of privatization also extends to governmental policy itself: take, for example, the recent healthcare reforms (Obamacare, formerly Romneycare), which seek to guarantee “universal healthcare” by requiring individuals to purchase their own health insurance. The implication is that principles—in this case, that the state should guarantee universal healthcare—can only be converted into effective policies by being redescribed as preferences: the redistribution of responsibility from the state to the individual this “redescription” entails is obvious enough.43 The management of what Jacques Donzelot calls “social risk” is imagined not as the province of the providential state but of the individual: governmental policy becomes a policy of self-government.44 In the age of neoliberalism, then, both the functions of government and acts of political resistance (which perhaps can no longer be plausibly described as acts of resistance to “the government”) are increasingly privatized. Bartleby sought to express a principled opposition to the market in the form of a statement of preference, but his resistance remains a “dead letter” because to convert principles into preferences is merely to mirror the action of the market itself. Ultimately, then, rather than imagining the state as an effective mechanism of resistance to the market, “Bartleby” dramatizes the pervasiveness of the market (or properly speaking, market ideology), its ability to absorb resistance into itself.
Regarded in this light, Bartleby’s current vogue among anti-capitalist activists and theorists should be regarded as peculiar, but also telling. Beyond the minor ironies of Bartleby becoming a countercultural “brand” (one OWS participant’s blog describes her joy at finding a shopping bag emblazoned with the slogan “I would prefer not to”), the invocations of Bartleby as a figure for resistance to capitalist hegemony on the part of left intellectuals like Hardt and Negri and Žižek also fail to supply a convincing alternative to market ideology. Hardt and Negri’s reference to Bartleby (itself heavily influenced by Agamben’s account of Melville’s tale) as a figure for ontological resistance to Empire is particularly relevant here in the sense that—like Bartleby himself—it produces a model of resistance that ultimately only mirrors what it seeks to resist. This is not, of course, an oversight on Hardt and Negri’s part: the claim that the potential resistance of the multitude is embedded within Empire, that the former inevitably reflects the “network” form of the latter, is central to their argument. Nevertheless—viewed in reverse, as it were—Hardt and Negri’s critique of Empire could be regarded as reproducing the ideological assumptions that authorize capitalist hegemony. This is not merely to say that “networks” of various kinds that might appear to be outside of or even opposed to the “system” of capitalist exploitation are always susceptible to co-optation: a point that Hardt and Negri would undoubtedly concede. It is, rather, to say that the concept of the network itself—as a way of conceiving both power and liberation from power—is merely an extension of market ideology (thus the proliferation of economic analyses and business manuals testifying to what Yochai Benkler calls “the wealth of networks”).45 What the network structure—like the market structure—conceals is class antagonism.
Marx, of course, formulated class antagonism as a binary opposition of bourgeoisie and proletariat: an over-simplification no doubt (even in the mid-nineteenth century), but nonetheless a necessary one. It is in this spirit that we should defend Occupy Wall Street’s slogan “we are the 99%” against the conventional criticism that it reveals the movement’s lack of a coherent agenda. Certainly, the various individuals and factions that stand as representatives of “the 99%” have diverse political agendas and different socio-economic positions. Yet this is precisely why the slogan represents something of a triumph—albeit a rather modest one from a Marxist standpoint—as a rallying cry for class antagonism. Lack of a uniform political “subjectivity” (a term which I borrow from Hardt and Negri with reluctance, since it implies a necessary relation between socio-economic position and political belief) need not preclude a coherent political message. Moreover, when protestors hold up graphs demonstrating the indisputable fact that the household income of the top 1% has risen out of all proportion with that of the rest of the US population, it hardly seems fair to accuse them of a lack of rhetorical specificity.46
For critics like Hardt and Negri, on the other hand, the lack of coherence which skeptics on the left and opponents on the right deride as a weakness of the Occupy movement should be celebrated as its strength. This is precisely because, for these thinkers, the form of protest is more significant than its content: what matters is not the movement’s political message or agenda but its “horizontal network structure.”47 Unsurprisingly, then, Hardt and Negri claim that Occupy Wall Street has “deep roots in the globalization protest movements that stretched at least from Seattle in 1999 to Genoa in 2001.”48 And indeed, their celebration of the Seattle protests in Multitude emphasizes, again, the form or structure of the movement as its unifying element (“Social forums, affinity groups, and other forms of democratic decision-making are the basis of the movements”) while insisting that the importance of this network structure is that it preserves rather than “subordinates or sets aside [the protestors’] differences.”49 It is this commitment to preserving difference that ultimately reveals the limitations of the network structure as a way of conceiving liberatory class struggle, however: a point that becomes clearer if we return to the theorists’ account of Bartleby.
Following Agamben, Hardt and Negri invoke Bartleby as a figure of pure potentiality rather than positive ontology: as Žižek puts it, “for HN, Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’ is interpreted as merely the first move of, as it were, clearing the table, of acquiring a distance toward the existing social universe; what is then needed is a move toward the painstaking work of constructing a new community.”50 Again, however, we could read (and indeed, given the internal logic of Hardt and Negri’s work, its constant movement away from “constituted” reality and toward ontological possibility—should read) this process in reverse. Bartleby’s gesture is not the beginning but the endpoint of a politics of pure refusal, the point at which difference cancels itself out in the general ontology of “being against.” It is important to note, however, that this canceling out of difference is quite distinct from that which is entailed by the concept of the proletariat, which, as Lukács points out, is “totalizing” not in the sense that it reduces its various elements to “an undifferentiated uniformity” but in the sense that it provides the perspective from which to understand the relations between those elements—that is, the perspective of a central, organizing antagonism.51 Hardt and Negri’s concept of the “multitude”, on the other hand, can actively seek to preserve rather than merely explain difference, precisely because all differences are equal in the “horizontal” structure of the network: the determinate differences among the multitude resolve themselves into Bartleby’s indifferent refusal.
This is the point at which Hardt and Negri’s and Žižek’s ostensibly divergent accounts of “Bartleby” overlap. Žižek’s criticism of the former is that, in imagining Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” as merely a preparatory stage in the work of social reconstruction, Hardt and Negri remain committed to “the politics of ‘resistance’ or ‘protestation,’ which parasitizes upon what it negates.”52 This criticism is justified to the extent that, as I have suggested, Hardt and Negri’s celebration of the “network” as the site of resistance not only borrows its conceptual apparatus from market ideology but also empties the notion of resistance of any substantive content. Indeed, the Occupy movement’s latest incarnation as Occupy Sandy, admirable and necessary though its work may be, testifies to the extent to which the movement itself has taken this account of its “real significance”—as an organizational structure rather than as the bearer of an alternative ideology—to heart (one must assume that this is a thoroughly regretful transformation from the point of view of Žižek, for whom “humanitarian” organizations, by definition, fail to pose a challenge to the capitalist world order). Yet Žižek’s own reading of “Bartleby”—and his answer to Hardt and Negri—takes us even further in the direction of ontological (in)difference and thus away from the “concrete demands” that would supposedly undermine the authenticity of the protest: “[Bartleby’s] refusal is not so much the refusal of a determinate content as, rather, the formal gesture of refusal as such…There is no violent quality in it; the violence pertains to its very immobile, inert, insistent, impassive being.”53
The charge that Occupy Wall Street lacked a coherent political message is ultimately less convincing than the charge that it lacked a strategy for converting that political message into a practical program, either by constituting a new party or by exerting its influence in the existing party structure. Again, from the point of view of both Hardt and Negri and Žižek, this could only be a good thing: any attempt to work within existing democratic mechanisms would be a capitulation to the hegemonic capitalist order and thus a betrayal of the movement’s revolutionary potential. In response to Žižek’s claim that “[t]he difficulty of imagining the New is the difficulty of imagining Bartleby in power,”54 however, one should object on both literary-critical and political grounds: the basis of the objection in either case is the omission of an account of the state as a potential organ of resistance to capital.
In the tradition of the “what if?” school of criticism to which “Bartleby” seems to have given rise (What if Bartleby were a woman? An anorexic? A factory worker?), one could say that Bartleby is not a radical, but if he were, his radicalism would be exercised through the state. From this point of view, both Hardt and Negri and Žižek’s account of the tale are simply more theoretically sophisticated versions of the literary critical arguments that make Bartleby a Thoreauvian figure resisting “the system” (an argument that, as I have argued, misrepresents the nature of the resistance in either case). In fact, Bartleby’s commitment to the state means that he is not so much anti-capitalist as anti-neoliberal. And in this respect, he is the antithesis of Thoreau.
Of course, it seems rather absurd to approach neoliberal ideology through the prism of two mid-nineteenth century texts. My aim has been to suggest, however, that these texts, written at the moment of the “market revolution,” do in fact help us to understand the ideological bases of neoliberalism, precisely by expressing—and in Melville’s case, exploiting—the gap I referred to earlier, between the point of view of the market (which reaches its apotheosis in neoliberalism) and the point of view of labor. These alternatives also entail different models of governmentality, and different conceptions of the role of the state. Depending on how one looks at the tale, Bartleby is either a reluctant entrepreneur or a proletarian activist; he either successfully refuses to be commodified or is crushed by the capitalist machine; either the prison represents a respite from the thoroughfares of the marketplace or its walls are merely an extension of Wall Street. In Melville’s text, in fact, either conclusion turns out to be pessimistic—even Bartleby’s success turns out to be illusory. Nevertheless, if history proved Melville right in one sense, it proved him wrong in another. The reformist state that became the progressive state that became the welfare state did, in fact, seek to redress not only the instabilities but the inequities of capitalism. That is to say, it recognized the gap between the viewpoint of the market and the viewpoint of labor. Neoliberalism, by contrast, seeks to assimilate the latter to the former. Its commitment to the self-governing individual becomes, at the same time, a commitment to ignoring structural economic inequality altogether.
It would be grossly unfair to accuse either Hardt and Negri or Žižek of sharing this commitment. What one can say, however, is that, in eliding the possibility that the state could operate (and has operated) as a site of resistance to capitalist hegemony, they sacrifice an important theoretical challenge to neoliberal ideology. What they sacrifice at the level of political practice, meanwhile, might best be summarized in Žižek’s own words. In the same text in which he invokes Bartleby’s absolute refusal as the necessary form of contemporary political protest, Žižek criticizes Simon Critchley for the claim that “politics has to be conceived at a distance from the state,” at a local, “situational” level.55 Žižek responds, “is not Critchley’s position one of relying on the fact that someone else will take on the task of running the state machinery, enabling us to engage in critical distance toward the state?”56 Increasingly, that “someone else” is represented by neoliberal leaders whose policies continue to serve the interests of capital and to intensify the exploitation of labor. It is important to note, furthermore, that these leaders typically portray themselves as pragmatic “realists” devoid of ideology. In this respect, the task of political theory is precisely to refuse “critical distance”—to take the disavowed ideology seriously, if only in order to contest it.