Chris Beckett’s novel Two Tribes contains a more or less naturalistic account of events set in the author’s actual time and place: the book is about class differences in the UK during the Brexit disputes of the late 2010s. But this account, while it is contemporary for us, is framed as being written by a historian in the year 2266. This future narrator uses (fictional, but naturalistic) diaries from the 2010s as her raw material, in order to describe a failed romance between an upper-middle class man who is an architect, and a lower-middle class woman who is a hairdresser. Though these protagonists are both small business owners (and hence petit bourgeois in Marxist terms), they are very far apart in their values and assumptions, their habits and interests, and their social circles. The text moves back and forth between third-person descriptions of these characters’ lives, and first-person reflections by the narrator, who seeks to understand these lives from her own perspective as someone living in a twenty-third century Britain ravaged by climate catastrophe, economic decline, and authoritarianism. But there is also a third time level to the novel, consisting in scenes that are set in the narrator’s past, but that the narrator admits to inventing out of whole cloth, due to the absence of sufficient documentary evidence. These added scenes are also supposedly set in the late 2010s. But the narrator acknowledges that they would actually have taken place a bit later in time: the near future for us, but still the distant past for her. These scenes point to the origins of a violent civil war in later twenty-first century Britain, between high-tech armies bankrolled by professional and managerial elites (Tony Blair-style “New Labour” people), on the one hand, and fascist militias controlled by Tory aristocrats who recruit soldiers from the resentful white working class, on the other. This civil war is recounted as being nasty and quite destructive, even though the novel reveals that the instigators on both sides come from the same tiny ruling class. Beckett’s novel thus works on multiple levels with the estrangement effects that come from differences in perspective, due both to class antagonisms and to temporal displacement.
I have just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel, The Ministry for the Future. It is one of Robinson’s best books. It is a near-future novel, starting a few years from now, and continuing for several decades thereafter. It is about global warming, and the possibilities for alleviating climate catastrophe.
The novel begins with a real punch to the gut. The opening chapter depicts in excruciating detail a disastrous, and all too plausible, weather event. Recent scientific studies demonstrate that human beings cannot survive a wet-bulb temperature of over 35 degrees Celsius. (Wet bulb temperatures measure a combination of heat and humidity). The worst extreme-heat events across the world have almost reached this threshold; it is not unlikely that the threshold will be crossed sometime in the near future. When it gets that hot and humid, human bodies are unable to cool themselves any more; people die, even when they are in good health, have access to drinking water, and do nothing but sit motionlessly in the shade. Robinson’s opening chapter extrapolates such an event, imagining it taking place in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and killing 20 million people in the space of a couple of days.
After this harrowing opening, the novel looks at responses to, and ramifications of, a gathering awareness that something has to be done about climate change. The novel focuses on two protagonists. Frank May is an American aid worker in India, one of the few survivors of the opening chapter’s climate event. Unsurprisingly, he is both traumatized by PTSD, and weighed down with survivors’ guilt. Mary Murphy, the other protagonist, is an Irish politician who is named head of the eponymous Ministry for the Future, a UN agency founded in order to enforce the Paris Agreement and other international climate accords. It is underfunded, and has no military or police power to punish nations or corporations that violate the agreements, but it has some room to give financial support to modest climate initiatives, and to exercise moral pressure on governments and banks.
The Ministry for the Future is far more loosely organized than most of Robinson’s previous novels. Though it keeps on coming back to Frank and to Mary, it also offers a wide range of other voices and perspectives. Robinson is not interested in exploring bourgeois interiority, in the manner still typical of literary novels today (and even of literary novels that flirt with science fictional conceits). Rather, these two central characters are by design fairly flat and generic. Even their particular personal characteristics are forged in a kind of feedback response to the economic, social, political, and technological forces in the world they live in.
(I have to say that, personally, I find the novel of bourgeois interiority insufferable in the 21st century; which is why I prefer straightforward genre writing, like Robinson’s, to most varieties of more ‘literary’ science fiction).
In any case, the lives of Frank and Mary are (aside from the initial catastrophe Frank suffers through and witnesses) not all that dramatic. What’s dramatic are the events that unfold around them — world-scale in their impact, but most often local and small-scale in their enaction. The book is divided into over a hundred chapters, all of them relatively short (on the average, each chapter is 3 pages long or so; though individual chapters range in length from a single paragraph to fifteen or so pages). Though some chapters give third-person accounts of the lives of Frank and Mary, most of them come from other voices. Some are fairly straightforward infodumps; others describe local happenings in a wide range of voices, usually anonymous and often collective (“we” rather than “I”). Here we learn of the experiences of, among others:
- climate refugees who flee ravaged developing countries, and spend years in refugee camps in Switzerland and other western countries;
- engineers in Antarctica, experimenting with various techniques to slow down the melting of the glaciers;
- economists and lawyers seeking to convince the world’s central bankers to adopt more climate-friendly policies;
- terrorists who carry out targeted assassinations of oil company executives and other megarich people who are directly responsible for ruining the climate in the interest of short-term profit;
- exploited workers who rebel against neo-slavery conditions in extractive industries like mining;
and many others. These many chapters give the novel a diffuse feel. Robinson is juggling many threads, but he has no interest in combining them all into a tightly organized narrative. This is in part, at least, because the world we live in doesn’t work that way. It is unimaginably complex, and it is at least potentially open. The Ministry for the Future is dedicated to Fredric Jameson, and it offers an elegant and effective solution to the dilemma that Jameson outlined in his discussion of postmodernism several decades ago: how to “endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” when this system is dense and interconnected in ways that defy ordinary forms of representation. Robinson knows that a Spinozian understanding of this system sub specie aeternitatis, or a Hegelian grasp of the system in its dialectical totality, is impossible — the world system cannot be captured experientially, nor can it be cognized completely. Therefore, Robinson gives us multiple, and only loosely interconnected, perspectives — each of them is grounded in particular, incomplete sorts of experiences; but all of these actions and passions have global ramifications, well beyond the immediate experiences of the people who act and undergo them. The novel is filled with close descriptions of places and of actions, that are filled with local detail — but that also have implications that reach well beyond their immediate contexts. The book as a whole is discontinuous rather than synthesized into a perfectly shaped whole — but part of Robinson’s demonstration is that anything that were so well-shaped, would be, by that very fact, representationally inadequate. It is precisely this sort of open, indefinitely extensible, and never-completed endeavor that makes science fiction writing into “the realism of our time,” as Robinson insists in numerous essays and interviews.
(Side note: I find this sort of approach much better than the more common one that sees science fiction as utopian and/or dystopian. Fiction like Robinson’s doesn’t estrange us from contemporary social reality; rather, it gives us a “heightened sense,” to use Jameson’s words of that social reality, both in its hard actuality and in its still-open potentiality).
In a certain sense, The Ministry For the Future is almost a guidebook to how we may overcome the horrors of global warming, and avert a climate apocalypse. The novel does not offer us a messianic and utopian vision of revolution. Such a depiction would be useful in itself, by giving us a sense of what we need to fight for. But here Robinson is doing something different. The novel is filled with careful discussions of pragmatic policies that actually could be implemented in the world as we know it today, and that would have important positive effects. These are things like introducing a blockchain-regulated “carbon coin,” that would be paid to states, corporations, and individuals who succeed in sequestering carbon instead of spewing it into the atmosphere; geoengineering to make the waters of the Arctic, once they are unavoidably melted, more reflective of sunlight so as to decrease global heating; drilling in Antarctica to extract liquid water from underneath glaciers, where they lubricate fast motion of the ice above them into the ocean, but which, when extracted and refrozen on the surface increase the bulk of water trapped in ice form; setting up rewilding corridors in areas around the world, so that animal populations increase, and biotic products circulate without releasing carbon into the atmosphere; the replacement of gasoline-fueled airplanes with airships (essentially, large helium- or air-filled balloons), and of tankers with new sorts of clipper ships that move by a combination of air in the sails and motors whose generating power comes from sunlight via photovoltaic cells; a replacement of predatory private platforms like Facebook and Google with an organization of the Internet that is publicly owned and that preserves people’s privacy; and many more.
None of these technologies (using this word in the broadest possible sense) by themselves will save us from climate catastrophe, but deploying so many of them, together with creating a social atmosphere that is conducive to their continued discovery and development, can alleviate the otherwise runaway processes of global warming, and perhaps even reduce it to some extent. The point of giving us such detailed descriptions of all these processes is to make us aware that they are achievable in the actual world, with our current levels of technology and social and political organization. Robinson does not shy from the fact that getting these entirely plausible policies enacted will require, not only mass political protest around the world, but also some judicious doses of environmental terrorism. For instance, the transition over the course of the novel from fuel-consuming airplanes to carbon-neutral airships is prompted by eco-terrorist drone attacks that take down the former vessels frequently enough that even the rich are scared to fly in jet planes any longer. More broadly, central bankers (who are, the novel suggests, closer than any other group to being the actual rulers of the world) need to be bullied and threatened, as well as cajoled, into moving the world’s economies into more beneficial arrangements — they will only do so when they are convinced that current capital-accumulation policies can lead only to worldwide economic collapse and the loss of value of all the world’s currencies.
In a powerful sense, The Ministry for the Future is a remarkably optimistic novel. It assumes that our capitalist rulers can somehow be forced, or convinced, to accept the reforms necessary to save the human world from ruination. The novel is, as I have already suggested, a reformist rather than a revolutionary one. It seems resigned to the fact that capital will never entirely relinquish its hold; but holds out the hope that it might agree to social changes that somewhat diminish its power and wealth, in order to avoid what Marx and Engels called “the common ruin of the contending classes.” It also depicts an improvement of the international situation. Robinson says little in the novel about the United States, implying (probably accurately) that conditions here are so vile and degraded as to be totally irreparable. He does depict some positive ecological initiatives that take place at the state level. Though at one point Robinson imagines the catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles — something for which a precedent exists in the Great Flood of 1862 — he also sees a California that is progressive enough to pioneer rewilding initiatives despite the hostilty of the US federal government. (There is even a short passage about surfing towards the end of the novel, though it is set in Hawaii rather than California).
But in the novel’s vision, other parts of the world do considerably better than the United States. The climate disaster in India leads to the total discrediting of Modi and the Hindu nationalists, and the election of a new government whose main object is to make sure that such a catastrophe never happens again. The novel also envisions a China that continues with its relatively (compared to the rest of the world) climate-friendly economic policies, while giving up on its heavy-handed totalitarian governance (not out of goodwill, but simply as a result of discovering by experience that it doesn’t really work very well) and according more rights to its currently hyper-exploited working class. And in the various countries of Europe, though the rightwing anti-immigrant parties still exist forty years from now, they fail to take power or to disrupt the semi-enlightened internationalism of the more liberal European tradition.
All in all, The Ministry for the Future gives us a best-case scenario. It is not without loss — there are also policy setbacks, murders and bombings by revanchist rightwing terrorists and venal governments, and so on. But nevertheless, by the end of the novel, the world seems to have drawn back from the precipice of climate catastrophe — although the improvements in both the climate situation and the social situation, remain precarious. The world has not been saved, and hard work and massive international solidarity will still be needed for an indefinite future. But the worst has been averted, at least temporarily. Arguably, we need more quasi-optimistic (but not mindlessly optimistic) speculation like this, if only as a counterweight to our seemingly endless diet of dystopian horror.
And yet, and yet… I called The Ministry for the Future a best-case scenario. If precarious survival is the best that we can hope for, what will we face in a non-the-best case? It remains extremely unlikely that as many things will go right as the novel needs to have going right in order for it to present its case. The novel demonstrates that a better world is truly possible, and attainable, on the bases of the resources and technologies we have now. But I cannot help also realizing that without all these technologically possible, and yet all-too-politically-unlikely developments, we are, in fact, well and totally fucked.
Lisa Adkins’ new book, The Time of Money, is brilliant and, I think, extremely important. But I also find it quite perplexing in terms of its overall stance and motivation.
The basic argument of the book is that speculative financial operations are central to social life and experience today. Capitalism has moved from an extractive regime (generating surplus from exploiting labor) to a speculative regime (generating surplus from speculative financial transactions). In this way, finance is in no sense superstructural or extrinsic to the “real economy”; rather, it directly and entirely makes over the entire realm of the social. And in particular, financial speculation makes over our concept and experience of time. Under industrial capitalism, we experience time as a uniform and extrinsic measure: labor power is a commodity measured in units of time, and commodities in general are subject to universal equivalence through the socially necessary time of their production. But we are now, instead, subject to speculative time:
Time is not a thing that simply passes or that contains and orders events, nor is it something that moves in one direction or another, proceeding, for example, chronologically, progressively, or sequentially, with the past standing behind the present and the future unfolding from the now. Speculative time is a time in which pasts, presents, and futures stand not in a predetermined or pre-set relation to each other but are in a continuous state of movement, transformation, and unfolding. It is this form of time that belongs to the time of securitized debt. Thus, in the time of securitized debt, futures may remediate not only the present but also the past; the present and its relation to the past and the future may be reset in one action (via, e.g., index rolling); pasts and presents can be forwarded and futures and presents backwarded. It is, moreover, along the flows of these nonchronological pasts, presents, and futures, including their reordering and resetting and even their suspension, that channels for profit are yielded. In short, in the time of securitized debt, the time of profit lies in the nonchronological and indeterminate movements of speculative time.
This new sort of time is not only the time of derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; for it completely penetrates and transforms everyday experience as well. Individuals and households are now subjected to speculative time. It is no longer the case that wages compensate labor, and provide the basis for social reproduction (the old, Keyensian-Fordist model, under which the man’s labor provided for the commodity needs of the household, like food and shelter, while women worked inside the home in uncompensated domestic labor). Instead, wages are no longer sufficient to meet household needs, even if women as well as men enter full time into the workforce. Similarly, so-called “welfare reform” means that the state no longer provides necessities for the unemployed, but instead forces even people without jobs to engage in incessant, uncompensated labor.
For both the employed and the unemployed, and for both men and women, wages today do not provide enough to get by (enough for social reproduction), as they used to do in the Fordist era; instead, we are all required to use our wages for speculative investment, by accumulating debt as well as by enlisting what money we supposedly have in speculative schemes from which banks, realtors, etc. can draw more and more surplus. We are now continually indebted for life; financial institutions lend us more than we will ever be able to pay back, because they make their money not so much on the ultimate repayment of their loans as on the packaging and sale of these obligations in the form of derivatives, credit default swaps, etc. etc. I will never get my Visa debt, or my mortgage, down to zero; for one thing, I do not earn enough to pay down these debts in my lifetime, and for another thing, I am continually offered the prospect of rolling over and renegotiating these debts, which serves to perpetuate them ad infinitum. None of the financial institutions to which I owe these debts is interested in my paying them off and becoming debt-free; they would rather that I continue to pay them off without ever fulfilling my “obligation.” They make more money by buying and selling such accumulated debts, and their associated income streams of continual payments, than they ever would by getting me to pay back the principal.
In this way, the everyday experience of individuals and households, and the everyday money we use to buy basic goods and services, are entirely subsumed by, and subjected to, the speculative time of finance. This means that in the current regime of debt time is not emptied out, or deprived of a future, in the way that Lazzarato and other critics have claimed; rather, our experience of temporality is more intense and convoluted than ever before. We are compelled to live according to the speculative time of finance; we cannot simply remember the past and anticipate or project into the future, but must micro-organize every aspect of our lives, and of our temporal experience, in accordance with the never-completed and continually-reshaped necessities of debt servicing:
Such [repayment] schedules—operating for the waged, the employed, the unwaged, the jobless, the underemployed, and the unemployed—have not only rewritten the relationship between household and personal debt and income but tie populations across whole lifetimes to the movements of speculative time, a time in which the relationships between the past, present, and future are not fixed but open to constant adjustment. Contemporary debt, then, does not destroy time by tying populations to futures that can never be their own but opens out a universe in which they are tied to the indeterminate movements of speculative time. This is a time through and in which the productivity of populations is maximized via the flows and movements of money.
I find Adkins’ account compelling. She makes a powerful argument for the claim that speculative finance entirely and massively “rewrites the social.” This is clearly in tension with Marxist claims that are based in the primacy of roduction, and that understand financial instruments as “ficticious capital.” But in a broader sense, I find Adkins’ account still congruent with the larger Marxist understanding that social processes are based, “in the last instance,” upon the extraction and expropriation of a surplus generated in the course of human life activity (or what Marx called “species being” in his early writings, and specified in terms of productive activity in his later writings). I think that the expropriation and accumulation of a surplus is the most crucial point – which is why, for instance, I have never been troubled, as many orthodox Marxists have been, with something like Sraffa’s understanding of surplus extraction and accumulation. It is the extraction (or theft from the public) of the surplus that is crucial, whether this is understood in terms of labor commodified as labor power (Marx), of physical production (Sraffa), or of financial speculation (in Adkins’ model). And in the contrary case, it is this failure to recognize the expropriation of a surplus, in any of these modes, that characterizes bourgeois economics. [Right-wing populism sometimes denounces “parasites,” who can be bankers (presumptively Jewish), as well as welfare recipients (presumptively Black) and violent criminals (presumtively Latino), but it never offers a social and systematic account of surplus expropriation].
So from this point of view, I see Adkins’ understanding as a useful one, and indeed as a way of showing that financial activities are fully material processes, as against “the ongoing identification of money and finance as immaterial or superstructural phenomena,” as other Left theorists, such as Mauricio Lazzarato, have tended to claim:
contra Lazzarato, the emergence of such everyday forms of money as a nonrepresentational surface that must be put in motion and practices that ensure that the productive capacities of populations are maximized toward such speculative activities is neither immaterial nor does it operate outside of the coordinates of the social world.
I think Adkins is right that financial speculation is a fully material process, not a parasitic superstructure to the economy. Just as I find Sraffa as a useful supplement to Marx with his emphasis on physical production, I see Adkins as useful for her emphasis on speculative movement. This is despite the fact that, just as my worry with Sraffa is that his theory seems to offer no place for contemporary finance (circulation as itself a productive activity), so my symmetrically opposite worry with Adkins is that, even if we accept her contention about the centrality of financial speculation, she seems to write as if physical production didn’t exist at all any longer. When wages no longer allow for social reproduction of the individual or household, condemning people therefore to enter into endless speculative spirals of debt, isn’t this because people still need to obtain physical stuff in order to survive, or in order to maintain what Marx saw as the socially-defined level of subsistence (which is not the same as minimal physical subsistence, since it also includes, in the US for instance, such things as mobile phones)?
This limitation of Adkins’ theory is not in itself fatal — I accept that what she is writing about is indeed crucial, even if it is not total — but it leads me to the perplexity I mentioned at the start. Adkins’ tone is polemical, even vitriolically so, when she denounces other accounts of neoliberal economy and of financial speculation. She continually attacks “normative assumptions” such as the way that “the expansion of finance has been taken to be destructive of the future, to interfere with the proper flow of time, and to threaten to return us to previous, unenlightened eras.” While I understand Adkins’ desire to get away from “normative” ideas about temporality, I don’t see why she needs to make so extreme an opposition. I don’t think want to try to subsume these opposed images of time in some sort of Hegelian sublation, but I also don’t think they exclude one another as absolutely as Adkins says (I prefer to see it in terms of a Kantian antinomy, in which the opposed terms are mutually implicated, in a way that refuses any possibility of Hegelian sublation). She is quite positive in denouncing these other visions of futurity, but frustratingly vague in explaining the contrasting details of the speculative time of finance. Sometimes Adkins refers to the schedules of speculative time as “calendrics”; this puts me in mind of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire space opera trilogy, in which calendrics are the basic tools of imperial domination. As is so often the case with science fiction, Lee’s trilogy is much more detailed in its consideration of oppressive calendrics and how they might operate, than Adkins’ sociological text dares to be.
Adkins shows how time is produced in the current neoliberal regime of financial speculation, so that we are bound to a very powerful, if indeterminate and continually shifting and changing, sort of futurity. This is entirely in line with Foucault’s (and Deleuze and Guattari’s) idea that power is generative rather than repressive. But such an ordering — an enslavement, really, to contingency, possibility, and irreducible risk — is not really opposed to the idea of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher), according to which we cannot imagine a future that is in rupture from the ongoing neoliberal present. Rather, the two are conjoined. In what Deleuze calls the society of control (rightly cited by Adkins), we are continually indebted (rather than serially imprisoned in a series of institutions as was the case in the disciplinary society), but this perpetual indebtedness, while it binds us to a very particular set of obligations that entirely determine our future, can also be said to be denying us any difference in the future. We cannot imagine anything different from financial capitalism, because we cannot imagine anything different than a regime of continually metamorphosing futures which, for all their uncertainty, generate a surplus that financial institutions expropriate from us, while leaving us exposed to risks for which there is no social remedy (since the structures of the welfare state have been systematicaly dismantled). Our binding to complex nonlinear regimes of futurity is precisely what makes other senses of futurity impossible.
My puzzlement grows even further when I reflect how Adkins suggests that the speculative time of finance is closely akin to the speculative accounts of time that we find in contemporary feminist and new materialist philosophy (she specifically mentions Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, and Iris van der Tuin, among others). But though she mentions this, she doesn’t follow up on the observation. The speculative temporalities advanced by these thinkers are intended to offer us liberatory alternatives to the oppressions of normative, linear clock time. Should we think instead that they are just accurate descriptions of our current mode of oppression? I have sometimes made this move with regard to Deleuze and Guattari; for instance, I have suggested that their notions of the rhizomatic, of smooth space, of micropolitics, etc., are not forms of liberation, but precisely the tools that allow us to apprehend how neoliberal power and exploitation operate. Nothing is more rhizomatic than contemporary finance capital, and nothing is more exploitative. Should we say the same for feminist and new materialist temporal speculation? Is there any alternative temporality at all, if it turns out that these supposedly liberatory accounts are really just mechanisms of finance capital? That is what Adkins implies. But she never quite comes out and says this. And of course, convinced as I am by her arguments, I nonetheless do not want to accept this grim conclusion. And we should also consider — although Adkins does not — the alternative, speculative temporalities proposed by Afrofuturists from Sun Ra to Rasheedah Philips, which refer both to the past and the future, against an oppressive present and against enslavement to linearity. Are these too merely expressions of the logic of financial speculation? Can speculative fiction be disentangled from speculative finance? This is the biggest question that Adkins leaves me with, and to which she does not offer any sort of answer.
This is a brief (and quickly written) commentary on an old talk by Ray Brassier, about Nick Land, dating from 2010. The questions around speculative realism, accelerationism, and Land’s current politics are all still with us today. Brassier describes Land’s philosophical project, its impetus, its originality, and why it ends in an impasse that Land can only deal with by becoming a neo-reactionary.
According to Brassier (and I think this is entirely accurate), Land’s starting point is the “transcendental materialism” of Deleuze and Guattari. Land “proposes to radicalise critique… by collapsing the hierarchy of the transcendental and the empirical… the first thing that needs to be destratified is the empirical/transcendental difference.” Kant’s critique of metaphysics is conducted precisely by means of distinguishing the transcendental from the empirical (and also the transcendental from the transcendent). Deleuze and, a fortiriori, Land turn this critique back upon its presuppositions, in order to affirm a radical immanence, in which “matter itself is synthetic and productive. Matter is primary process, and everything that unfolds at the level of conceptual representation is merely secondary and derivative.” Deleuze already pursues this via Bergson’s critique of representation and privileging of intuition. Land goes further, getting rid of intuition, and of anything else that is subjective, phenomenological, or affective. Land values intensity in itself, apart from any of these frameworks; the “subject” cannot experience intensity, because intensity destabilises and eliminates it. Brassier applauds this move, in contrast to the “flaccid inanity of contemporary Bergsonian vitalism,” which Brassier clearly detests.
However, this move also gets Land into an impossible impasse; this is because
vitalism is hence all about having intense experiences. But Landianism can’t avail itself of this register of intensification, because he’s not interested in phenomenological subjectivity and he’s not interested in experiences insofar as they are experiences of a subject in the Deleuzoguattarian register: an organism, with a face and a personal identity, etc. These are all the things that are supposed to require destratification.
In other words, the project fails precisely because intensification is “not translatable into any register of affective experience or affective intensity” — in exactly the same way that it is not translatable into any register of cognition or conceptualization. Those of us working in affect theory have been claiming for quite some time that the realm of affect is presubjective, and that it includes layers of efficacy and determination that are irreducible to cognition or to concepts. (My own version of this works this out by ignoring Kant’s transcendental argument in the First Critique, in favor of his aesthetics in the Third Critique). Brassier tells us that we are operating with a stacked deck, as it were; all our arguments about the failure of cognition or of concepts can be turned around to equally demonstrate the failure of “affective experience or affective intensity.” From Brassier’s point of view, we are all a bit “muddle-headed” (as Russell accused Whitehead of being). In Brassier’s account, the superiority of Land is that he at least faces the deep consequences of an ethics of intensity, as Deleuze and affect theorists do not.
But the other side of this is that, according to Brassier, Land has no other basis for action besides the one that he has so rigorously destroyed. Land wants to maintain “that you can just keep on intensifying and intensifying,” without end. This is impressive in that it substitutes a death drive, Thanatos, for the vitalist (Bergsonian) life drive that Brassier finds so lax and vapid. But ultimately Land’s process of radicalization subverts itself: “if your schizoanalytical practice is fuelled by the need to always intensify and deterritorialize, there comes a point at which there is no agency left: you yourself have been dissolved back into the process.” Inevitably “you end up engendering performative contradictions, not just theoretical ones. Contradictions at the level of concepts manifest themselves as an incapacity at the level of practice.” Or, in other words, Land’s philosophy “leads to a kind of practical impotence.”
From this, the route to Land’s current politics is easy to see. For Land, “politics must be displaced, it must be deputized, and all you can do is endorse or affirm impersonal processes which at least harbour the promise of generating or ushering in the next phase of deterritorialization.” You can only be fatalistic, welcoming the processes that destroy us as agents or subjects. But in practice, your disavowal of any willed practice “means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc…. If you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics.” Land ends up becoming “he pawn of another kind of impersonal force… a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism.” Celebrating capitalist deterritorialization for its own sake leads to neo-reaction, or neo-feudalism, or whatever else we want to call the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. Trump may be losing the current election, but (as Roddey Reid suggests), a Trump 2.0 is likely to emerge in the near future, one much slicker than Trump, and even more insidious.
Brassier’s own answer to this dilemma consists in his turn toward Sellars and allied philosophers; it’s a sort of Kant 2.0 that rehabilitates epistemology, rationality, and scientism from Deleuzian and Landian critiques. But I am not going to go into my own critique of Brassier’s position in any direct way here; rather, I want to suggest the possibility of a third position, distinct from either Brassier or Land, but nonetheless subsisting within the (anti-vitalist) terrain that Brassier depicts.
In short: Brassier warns us that “once thinking itself becomes subordinated to the imperative to intensify and destratify,” — and thereby rejects representation and epistemological issues– then “it’s clear that there must be a limitrophic point of absolute deterritorialization towards which the process of affirmation or acceleration tends.” But why should thought be governed by “the imperative to intensify and destratify,” any more than by the more traditional philosophic imperative of self-reflexive epistemological and representational critique? I am inclined to think that these are two sides of the same coin. Why should we do either?
My own response here is an aesthetic one. I am inclined to think (as I already argue in my book Discognition) that — far from being a discrediting flaw — performative contradiction is actually a sign that something is going right. Or — to put it a bit less categorically — arguments that end in performative contradiction are of course not necessarily right; but any line of approach that is right must necessarily lead to some sort of performative contradiction. This is because of the necessary inadequacy of cognitive categories to grasp and determine the Real. It’s a lesson we ultimately get from Kant, in spite of himself, and that becomes more overt in post-Kantians like Derrida (I know he usually isn’t regarded this way, but he should be), and in today’s speculative realism. This is where we get the philosophical destratification of the transcendental-empirical binary. All of our transcendental a prioris (and we cannot ever dispense with them) turn out to be empirical and contingent in the last analysis. The very act of making a categorical assertion involves me in a performative contradiction; yet we cannot do without such categorical assertions. You can well say, from the point of view of epistemology, that this situation “leads to a kind of practical impotence,” or to an endless process of deconstruction. But performative contradiction is an aesthetic condition, not an epistemological one. Art exists because the most important things in life are epistemologically intractable. Epistemology (the First Critique) and ethics (the Second Critique) are incomplete, and indeed they can only avoid collapse, through the intervention of aesthetics (the Third Critique).
I think that (as I argued in a different way in my little book on accelerationism) any such neo-aestheticism also implies a different theory of desire from the one we take for granted. Affirmationist and vitalist theory, and the radical negation of these that we find in its most “virulent” form in Land, and in a much more sophisticated form in Brassier, are united in that they both assume the infinitude of desire, and hence the inevitable discontinuity between desire (or desiring production) and its actual effects or consequences. Such is also the presupposition of the 19th and 20th century sublime, of psychoanalytic theories of desire, and of the simple consumerism which is our most elaborated form of desire today. Against this widely-shared idea of desire’s infinitude, what I am calling neo-aestheticism understands desire as being finite, multiple, and combinatorial. Such an approach to desire is expressed most fully perhaps, in Charles Fourier’s utopian visions (which are simultaneously a parody of bourgeois-capitalist forms of subjectivity, and their antidote), as well as in the notions of self-fashioning that we see, perhaps, in Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. Aesthetic self-fashioning does not start in any thing subjective or agential; instead, it ends in them (and of course it only ends in this way provisionally, because as finite and combinatorial it always runs out at some point, and hence needs to be practised again. This incompletion is what is often misunderstood as the infinitude of desire; but it involves repeated small satisfactions, rather than some general existential dissatisfaction).
The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.
The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-Francois Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.” By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” — as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx — is valued in and of itself.
In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left — one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.
The new technologies — digital and otherwise — of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.
Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.
Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,
We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.
What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem — well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.
The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.
This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organizational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.
Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favors when they characterize localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”
In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).
Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant — without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:
- Full automation
- The reduction of the working week
- The provision of a basic income
- The diminishment of the work ethic.
It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions — freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want — under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable — as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realize them — their fulfillment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.
Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that
the power of the left — broadly construed — needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.
Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” — an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.
To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the center of policy-making.
The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,
It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.
This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.
Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,
Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilize dreams of decarbonizing the economy, space travel, robot economies — all the traditional touchstones of science fiction — in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.
Post-capitalism (or better, communism — to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages — just barely — to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned on this blog a situation I was in: that I was unwilling to sign a contract for an essay I had written in contribution an anthology of critical essays from Oxford University Press (OUP), because the contract stipulated that the essay would be regarded as “work for hire.” This would mean that I would have absolutely no rights as the author of the work. Whereas most academic press contracts ask you to sign away certain of your rights, by transferring copyright from yourself to the press, this contract from OUP meant that I would have no rights at all — if I signed, I would be agreeing that (as Gordon Hull put it — see the comments to the previous blog entry) “copyright was never [mine] in the first place — it belonged to OUP from the start.” It is obvious that, were this to become the norm in academic publishing, then intellectual enquiry and academic freedom, as we now know them, would cease to exist. Writers would become “knowledge workers” whose output belonged to the press that published them (or to the university at which they worked, in another variant of the scenario) in the same way that code written on the job at Microsoft, Apple, or Google belongs to those companies, and not to the writers themselves.
Well, the academics who are putting together the volume to which I was supposed to be contributing graciously asked OUP on my behalf about the work for hire provision. The response they got back was that the Press wouldn’t budge on work for hire. I don’t think I have permission to actually reproduce the words of the editor from OUP, so I will paraphrase. What he basically said was that traditional publication agreements are insufficient because they only give presses “limited sets of rights.” In other words, he was openly confessing that OUP seeks complete and unlimited control over the material that they publish. The justification he gave for this was that old neoliberal standby, “flexibility” — OUP is seeking to do all sorts of digital distribution, and if rights are limited then they may not be able to control new forms of distribution that arise due to technological changes. Of course, the mendaciousness of this claim can be seen by the fact that, as was confirmed to me by one of the people involved in putting together the volume, the “work-for-hire” provision was in place long before the Press even got the idea of supplementing physical publication of the volume with a (no doubt password-protected and expensive to acces) website.
Equally alarmingly, the editor said in his email that this “work for hire” provision was now standard practice for the press, at least as regards their very ambitious series of “Handbook” volumes. In other words, OUP is being quite systematic in usurping authors’ rights. If we don’t stop this now, it will become more and more prevalent throughout academic publishing. The volume to which I was supposed to contribute is quite an excellent one, with lots of great articles (I don’t want to mention its name here so as not to disparage the work of the three academics who put it together).
But I, for one, am determined never to write for Oxford University Press again, unless they eliminate this policy; and I would urge others to refuse to write for them as well. I know that people in less privileged positions than mine are pretty much compelled to sign odious agreements of this sort, because they need the publications for academic credit and recognition, and often specifically for tenure or promotion. So I don’t condemn anyone who does enter into so unfavorable an agreement — rather, I would hope that action by those of us who can afford to take our work elsewhere, or simply make it available for free, will lead to the elimination of such exploitative contracts altogether. I would advise all academic writers to look carefully at their contracts, before they commit themselves.
I will also not be buying any OUP books in the future — which is something of a sacrifice, as they are an important press. [I recently purchased from OUP, at an exorbitant price, the important new book by Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes From Powers — which I hope to write about on this blog or in some other forum soon. Should a future situation of this sort arise, I will just have to bite the bullet and wait until I can get a copy through interlibrary loan. I don’t really expect that libraries will stop buying OUP books, and I think the dissemination of scholarship is important, so I cannot really say that I will refuse to read anything, no matter how important, just because it is published by OUP. But I do think buying less from them might have an impact on their profit line, and thus pressure them to cease their unfair practices].
As for my article itself — which is 8500 words long, which contains substantial arguments not found in anything else that I have written, and which cost me two months of my life — I will try to find another venue for it to appear in print. I will eventually make it available for free download from my own website as well (as I have done with most of my writings), but it still seems unfortunately to be the case that academic writings are not taken seriously if they do not have some “official” form of publication.
[This posting has now been translated into Haitian Creole by John Obri — for which much thanks.]
Here we go again. I was asked to sign a contract for an essay I have written, which is scheduled to appear in an edited collection. Let’s leave aside the fact that I wrote the essay — it was solicited for this collection — in summer 2010, and yet it will not appear in print until 2013. I think that the glacial pace of academic publishing is a real problem. But that is not what is bothering me at the moment. The contract that I was asked to sign, so that my essay could appear in an edited volume published by Oxford University Press, contained the following clause:
WORK-FOR-HIRE. The Contributor acknowledges that the Publisher has commissioned the Contribution as a work-for-hire, that the Publisher will be deemed the author of the Contributior as employer-for-hire, and that the copyright in the Contribution will belong to the Publisher during the initial and any renewal or extended period(s) of copyright. To the extent, for any reason, that the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, theContributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.
I am unwilling to sign the Contributor’s Agreement for my submission to the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics as it is currently worded. In particular, I find section 2, defining my contribution as work-for-hire, completely objectionable. I entirely reject the notion that original academic work of this sort can be defined as work-for-hire. I think that this is demeaning to academic scholarship and disrespectful of intellectual labor.
Section 2 of the contract further stipulates that even if “the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, the Contributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.” I find this objectionable as well. Even if my contribution to the volume is exempted from being considered work-for-hire, I am unwilling to sign over my own rights to the publisher in this unlimited way. In particular, I insist upon retaining, among other rights, the right to make my contribution available for download on my own website and the right to include this contribution at some later date as part of a self-authored publication.
I published this on Google Plus some time ago, but I thought I should also post it here. The current ascendency of the egregious Newt Gingrich, now supposedly the front-runner for the Republican nomination, brings me back to the time when he was Speaker of the House. At the time I was making heavy use of an anagram-generating program, and it turned out that there were better anagrams for “Newton Leroy Gingrich” (his full legal name) than for nearly any other name or phrase I tried out. This inspired me to write a poem, founded in the Oulipo-style rule that every line had to be an anagram of Newt’s full name:
We’re crooning nightly,
Renewing thorny logic,
Cheerily noting wrong.
Coiling energy, thrown.
Wrongly enticing hero,
Ongoing wintry lecher,
Reigning theory clown,
Whining electron orgy
I am reprinting here my short review of David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which I originally posted on Google Plus last summer. Among other reasons, because the book is more relevant than ever today, given the Occupy movement.
David Graeber’s Debt The First Five Thousand Years is a brilliant and powerful book; and even, I would say, a crucial one. Graeber does several things. He shows how the notion of “debt” has been integral to any notion of an “economy.” He traces the history of debt, both as an economic concept and as a metaphor for other forms of social engagement, back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of thousands of years ago. He traces the changes in how debt is conceived, and how economic exchange is organized, in various Eurasian civilizations and societies since then. And he contrasts these relations of economy and debt to those that existed (and still exist to some extent) in non-state societies (the ones that anthropologists tend to study). He takes account of Braudel’s claim that markets have long existed outside of and apart from capitalism — but shows that such markets have only improved life for all, rather than enforcing vicious social stratification through the imposition and collection of debts, when they have been grounded in a cooperative ethos, rather than a harshly competitive one. And he shows that the existence of virtual currency and virtual debt is not just a recent phenomenon, but has deep historical roots — it is hard currency, rather than virtual accounting, that is the more recent (and shallower) innovation.
Several important conclusions emerge from Graeber’s meticulous work of comparison and reconstruction. One (not surprisingly for me) is to expose the ridiculous parochialism of the notions of Homo oeconomicus, of self-interested “rational choice,” etc., which have dominated Western social thought since Adam Smith. Another is to show that “market” and “state” have always been closely intertwined, and indeed that neither can exist without the other — exactly the contrary to the current ideology which sees state and market as opposed. Graeber also shows how the moralization of debt and indebtedness — the notion that one’s moral standing depends upon one’s readiness to pay what one owes — is a shoddy myth of fairly recent invention. In general, debt (as the financialization and quantification of formerly much broader notions of community and mutual obligation) has only existed to the extent that it has been enforced by massive, organized violence — Graeber draws a straight line from the genocidal violence of the Spanish conquistadors and North Atlantic slave traders of early modernity to the policing of work relations, and the management and containment of political protest today.
Graeber’s book is well-written, and entirely accessible to a general (non-specialist, non-academic) audience. Its calmness, lucidity, and careful sifting of evidence only add power to its ultimately quite radical condemnation of the total barbarity and oppressiveness of our contemporary society and civilization, and of the values that we unthinkingly take for granted.
Graeber is an anarchist rather than a marxist; and his approach is quite different from any sort of traditional marxist one. Nonetheless, I think that what he does can be accommodated alongside marxist concerns. For one thing, the book closely links forms of domination (whether by violence or imposed consensus) to forms of economic oppression (this in contrast to the way that so many recent academic studies have tended to separate the former from the latter, and ignore the latter entirely). Secondly, although Graeber is largely concerned with circulation (rather than, as Marx was, with the hidden depths of production), he entirely demystifies circulation and distribution, and shows the social forces (often violent and inegalitarian) that work through them, rather than idealizing the supposed autonomy of circulation and exchange, as mainstream bourgeois social science usually does. (Graeber makes quite explicit what other anthropologists have known for a long time — that Smith’s claim for a basic human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” is ridiculous and incredibly parochial).
So I think that Graeber’s long history of debt and currency has a lot to offer marxism, and vice versa. Graeber’s accounts of precapitalist economic formations and their relation to capitalism point to important dimensions that most marxist historians have failed to take into account. On the other hand, I find Graeber’s account of the current crises to be not entirely adequate. He is right that debt is at the center of current processes of dispossession, and the movements that have striven to oppose this. But I think that Graeber’s insights here need to be supplemented by more explicitly marxist accounts of capital accumulation and continuing, intensified exploitation (cf David Harvey on “appropriation by dispossession”, and Fredric Jameson on the production of massive unemployment and hence imporverishment as a necessary corollary of intensified surplus-value extraction).
My essay “Hyperbolic Futures” attempts to think about the ways that speculative fiction (i.e. science fiction) works in relation to speculative finance (of the sort that has screwed us over in the last several years). I take a look back at my 2003 book Connected, Or What It Means To Live in the Network Society, and think about what has changed in the world, and in SF’s relation to the world, since then. And I discuss two recent, great SF novels in particular: Richard K. Morgan’s Market Forces, and Lauren Beukes’ Moxyland.
The article was published in the excellent SF journal Cascadia Subduction Zone, published four times a year by Aqueduct Press. Each issue is published both in hardcopy and in pdf, and the pdf version is released free on the Internet six months after intial publication. The issue that includes my article (volume 1, # 2) is now available for free download, here.