Monday, May 24, 2010
Bickerton’s book traces the history of Cahiers du Cinéma from its roots in postwar cinephilia to the triumph of some of its writers as the New Wave in the early 1960s to the increasing politicization of the journal during the “red years” of the early 1970s to the commercialization and intellectual decline of the journal since the 1980s. According to Bickerton, “Cahiers initiated the final modernist project, as a magazine with the aim of consecrating cinema to the realm of the arts. By 1959 it had succeeded.” But Bickerton is openly critical of the glossy, substance-less magazine that Cahiers du Cinéma has become, arguing, “Cahiers now is dead.” This position of course has offended a number of the journal’s more sympathetic readers, some of whom have already pointed out minor chronological and factual errors in Bickerton’s book, but I believe her overall argument still holds. In the early postwar era, a number of new film journals appeared in France. In 1946, “cinephile Jean-Georges Auriol relaunched his pre-war Revue du cinema, with a mission to challenge the golden-ageism that idealized the silent era and combat the nationalist praise heaped on the cinema du qualité of Marcel Carné and René Clair.” Auriol brought on board a number of important critics, including Bazin and Rohmer. This group “was united not only by its passionate cinephilia but by its insistence on the need for a rupture with established cinematographic practice and theory.” The “young Turks” of Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, and Chabrol soon joined the journal and came to the front of its debates by 1949. When Auriol died in a car crash in 1950, the Revue ended and Cahiers was born. Bickerton clearly (and rightfully) fetishizes the format of the original “yellow Cahiers,” with its yellow color and single film still beaming from its cover. All of its parts “combined to produce an aesthetic masterpiece: through its simple, bold layout and composition alone, Cahiers, just as an object, paid homage to the beauty of cinema.” Bazin’s work on realism and the ontology of cinema – which always had a theological element to it – set the standard for the journal’s early years. “Although Bazin ceded editorial control to the young Turks as early as 1954, he had established Cahiers’ intellectual bedrock. During his lifetime he left a mark in nearly every copy of Cahiers – 74 out of 90 issues ran articles by Bazin – and the relevance of his ideas is still explored in its pages today.” The young Turks set off to war in 1954, advancing the “politique des auteurs in embryonic form” through passionate defenses of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bickerton singles out Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” for crystallizing the auteurist approach. Bickerton claims, “with ‘A Certain Tendency,’ the politique des auteurs had been formulated into an axiomatic program.” “Each critic had their personal favourites – for Rivette it was Hawks, for Truffaut, Hitchock, for Godard, Nicholas Ray – and in the spirit of the politique, each new film would be reviewed by the one who was most enthusiastic about it.” Bickerton notes that the journal during these years tended to neglect politics, other artistic movements, and early Soviet cinema. She explains, “Cahiers’ initial rejection of politics can be understood as a logical extension of the project to elevate film and criticism to the level of indisputable art, through evocation of the conscious genius at work behind the image. Seeing film therefore meant addressing first and foremost the mise en scene as a distinctive tableau put in place by the director, which in turn presented a coherent and unique world view. No ideological reading or political sympathy was necessary prior to this, and imposing it would inevitably produce a biased ‘reading’ of the film that failed to look at its visual composition.” By the end of the 1950s, the shift by many of its writers from film criticism to film making greatly changed the journal: “the journal had been a genuine stylo-caméra, to paraphrase Alexandre Astruc, but the young Turks were now ready to pick up the camera-stylo.” Between 1959 and 1963, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and Chabrol released the films that form the core of the New Wave. But during the same period, the vitality of the journal’s critical innovations declined. The American cinema was losing its appeal, the old masters were releasing mediocre works, and new forms of cinema were popping up across the globe. Many critics “were eager to reorient the review to serve in a new struggle that ensured Cahiers was part of the world it inhabited. This meant acquiring a better understanding of the ‘new cinemas’ being created around the world, and confronting the downturn of Hollywood auteurs; it also meant rethinking the discretion the magazine had shown when dealing with its own sub-products – the New Wave.” When Bazin died in 1958, Rohmer, who had always been older than the young Turks, stepped in as editor. Rohmer, who had more classical, if not conservative tastes, had to find new writers to replace those who had left to make films. Bickerton notes the distance between the journal and its writers-turned-film makers at first: “the initial reception of the New Wave at Cahiers itself was a bumpy one: no major article appeared on the films in the two years following the explosion of the movement, with the exception of Luc Moullet’s reflective piece on Godard. Jean Domarchi brushed aside Breathless, giving it a measly two stars.” The editors feared cheering on the New Wave would damage the journal’s intellectual standing, but an issue was finally devoted to the movement in 1962. The New Wave required a new critical approach to be addressed: it did not offer consecrated auteurs, it was a contradictory movement, and critics as potential film makers had a conflicted viewing experience. “Rivette conceded that pronouncing a verdict on any contemporary work was very difficult: ‘one begins by superimposing the film one expects, which one wanted to see, and even which one wanted to make oneself.’” Rohmer’s classicism (which wanted to ensure a kind of museum for film) became increasingly contested within the journal. A group wanting to discuss newer trends in film was led by Rivette, who put together a competing issue of the journal in 1963 that resulted in his usurping the editorial position of Rohmer (the latter was hurt, but fortunately it freed him to make his Moral Tales). During Rivette’s editorship, the critics who would later dominate the journal – Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni, and Serge Daney – made their first contributions. Under Rivette’s guidance, the journal was opened up to intellectual fields such as anthropology, literary theory, and psychoanalysis, as well as to modern innovations in art. Structuralism and the influence of Barthes led to more emphasis on the creative powers of the audience than on the genius of the auteur. Also at this time, “What critics were now expected to grasp were the external elements: the act of contextualizing a work was paramount; the sense of what environment a film had come out of, its connection with the world, and its expression of this. National cinemas were singled out as objects of study; from each film was extrapolated the particular economic, social and political conditions out of which it had emerged, and its entire production history was tracked. Out with the esprit de Cinématheque, where bodies and minds were shut away from the outside world; it was time for the lights to come on.” Cahiers was bought by the entrepreneur Daniel Filipacchi in 1964, and its format changed in 1966 to include a variation of cover colors. Bickerton interprets these surface changes as reflecting the journal’s new direction: “The refusal to allow its readers the recognizable symbol of old-style cinephilia was an active expression of the growing critique of that culture within the journal’s pages, an internal purging of golden-ageism.” In 1965, Rivette chose Comolli and Narboni to succeed him as co-editors. Under these new editors, the concept of the auteur came under increasing attack. Neglected works were championed and fought for, and the New Wave was defended against imposters such as Claude Lelouch. While becoming more critical of the passive nature of mainstream film, the journal gave more credit to the audience as a potential “active subject.” Bickerton claims this led to a more minority position, a move away from the mainstream populism of the early New Wave. Needless to say, May ’68 changed how films were made and written about. Cahiers went on the attack against Costa-Gavras’s Z, a political thriller that the journal claimed offered merely a consumable politics. The Soviet avant-garde and the concept of montage underwent a reappreciation, coming to challenge the Bazinian emphasis on deep focus. “The montage debate marked the beginning of a new and intense period of intellectual inquiry at Cahiers. New national cinemas and the revolutionary spirit of 68 acted as the main catalysts, initiating an energetic search for more relevant frameworks for criticism to operate through. This led, above all, to Louis Althusser – though most of the editors engaged with his work a la sauvage, having little prior academic formation. The influence of Althusser’s thought, in particular his analysis of state apparatuses that disseminate the dominant ideology, quickly made its mark: in October 1969 Comolli and Narboni published an editorial under the title ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, which lucidly set out the journal’s orientation and interests.” Bickerton classifies 1969-1973 as the journal’s “red years,” and situates the journal’s changes within the larger radicalization and de-radicalization of French society during the period. The dramatic turn to radical politics alienated the journal’s owner, Filipacchi, so the journal was made autonomous in 1970. The militant position of the journal quickly cut it off from most of the first Cahiers generation. “The absolute break with the past was effectively confirmed in October 1972 when the editorial committee of Doniol-Valcroze, Kast and Rivette was removed from the masthead. By 1973 the journal would be almost unrecognizable, transformed into an austere, thick booklet with no photographs and making scant reference to film, instead mapping out the urgent strategies to be undertaken on the ‘cultural front.’” Readership drastically declined and publication became erratic as the journal descended into Marxist-Leninist formulations. But the journal did publish many texts (often collectively written) that offered theoretical models that contributed to its international influence, in particular on the British journal Screen. It was during this period that Jean-Pierre Oudart published his important Lacanian article on the film “suture.” “Through these foundational texts, Comolli and Narboni were commended by other editors for their attempts to develop ‘a politics, not a poetics, of representation’ as the journal contributed to the development of a structuralist theory of cinema around the world.” Bickerton claims Comolli’s series “Technology and Ideology” “paved the way for a more specifically Maoist view of culture in Cahiers,” and soon the journal would be critiquing its former sympathy for the French Communist Party. “What Cahiers proposed in taking up the Marxist-Leninist line was to develop its own domestic variant of a Revolutionary Cultural Front,” known as “Front Q.” Philippe Pakradouni arrived in 1972 and pushed this line forward: “The Pakradouni effect was immediate: editors were duly dispatched around the country to screen militant films and animate discussions; the journal’s reports of these initiatives left scarcely any room for the critical analysis of film. The struggle, as it was now perceived, did not require a theory of cinema’s specificity. It needed troops on the frontline – usually intellectuals pulled from their desks – to take film to the people, and have people make their own films.” Cahiers’ Maoist turn came to a halt with the 1973 Avignon festival, which ended in fractions bitterly arguing. Soon after Pakradouni was removed and Daney, Bonitzer, and Toubiana came into control. Bickerton summarizes the red years: “The scientific clarity of Comolli and Narboni’s editorial in 1969 had provided a basis for close analysis without denying that a film was also a work of art, irreducible to its conditions of production. But the tenet that all films are political was a dead end for critics of cinema. Demanding that only revolutionary techniques can question bourgeois ideology yoked the context and source of a film together with its final result. This hindered engagement with any purportedly bourgeois product and ultimately outlawed the consideration of most contemporary films that the rest of the world was watching.” She adds, “Few worthwhile judgements on films were emitted in the red years. If the principles that drove this period – opposition to the development of mainstream pictures, the impact on avant-garde work – are laudable, less so were the results.” Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana led the journal out of Maoism over the last half of the 1970s, but Bickerton argues there was no simple break with radical politics, which continued to find space in the journal. Bickerton contrasts the two editors, claiming Daney was the innovative thinker while Toubiana was the pragmatic manager. Bickerton clearly approves of Daney, whose work remains scarcely translated into English. In addition to admiring and interviewing Deleuze, whose cinema books have many parallels to the journal’s interests, Cahiers also came to appreciate Foucault, whose work on “false archaeologizing” was used by the journal to attack the historical (postmodern) pastiche of newer films. The journal also assaulted the “new naturalism” of the 1970s, even though these films often had good political intentions. The films of Godard and Straub-Huillet were treated as critical ideals/extremes by many writers during this period, especially in Pascal Bonitzer’s 1976 article “J. M. S. and J. L. G..” But such an allegiance to the avant-grade was often questioned, and more mainstream films began to reappear in the journal (and on its covers), a shift that appeared to be a return to the style of the yellow years. Bickerton singles out Toubiana as leading this charge toward the mainstream, which did boost subscriptions. Daney left the journal in 1981, leaving Toubiana in control. “It was a separation that determined the future of the journal into the eighties and indeed up to today: the split between the two editors marked a fork in the road for Cahiers, between balancing on a radical, marginal, cinephile line and occupying the juste milieu of a standard glossy monthly.” Bickerton has little good to say about the journal after this point, arguing it has become “a mouthpiece for the market” that follows a “libertarian-neoliberal” line that equates the market with reality. In 1989, the format was made closer to other monthly glossies. “Toubiana was moulding Cahiers to fit a marketing department’s notion of the public – the busy, fleetingly curious, Friday-night film-goer who was a sucker for a pretty photograph. Editors must write to please, advise and pique curiosities, but never to convince of a new idea or to overturn a prejudice.” During the 80s and 90s, the term auteur began to be applied indiscriminately to young directors with few films and to Hollywood’s “movie brats” such as Lucas and Spielberg. In fact, in order to receive funding from the French Culture Ministry, budding French directors had to assert they were auteurs from the outset of their careers. Toubiana ruled over the journal for 20 years, stepping down in 2000, only to become director of the Cinématheque and oversee its horrendous move to the void of Bercy. The journal’s ownership has changed a few more times, yet Bickerton concludes: “Interesting writers and worthy pieces continue to appear, but it remains clear that as an intellectual project Cahiers is finished.” Not wanting to end on this gloomy note, Bickerton shows how other outlets and writers have taken up Cahiers’ original cause: “If there are films to be loved and championed, films you believe in and that teach you about life as well as about how to film life, you pick up your stylo-caméra and write about them. You do not trouble yourself with what the market or public thinks it wants: states of mind, obstinate and conservative views can be transformed if you show, through writing, the nature of film passing on the screen.”
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
In Barth’s mammoth comic novel, the universe is the University. Transforming academic bureaucracy into a metaphysical system, the novel substitutes “studentdom” for mankind, “campus riots” for world wars, and “commencement” for salvation. Religious leaders and spiritual gurus take the guise of “Grand Tutors,” who offer guidance toward “Graduation” through their competing “syllabi.” Barth worked in an English department while writing the novel, so a systems theory approach might show how he re-entered a system/environment distinction from within the university system, in effect subjecting outside reality to the codes of academia (I believe Mark McGurl has made an argument along these lines). The novel humorously and satirically reduces political and social conflicts to mere academic bickering, so that the tyranny of the university Chancellor has geopolitical (that is, campus-wide) significance within the narrative. The novel even includes an entire tragic play starring the college administration. Yet one might read the entire novel against the grain, taking seriously its direct equation of unruly studentdom and society. The Cold War conflict between capitalism and communism is replaced by inter-campus animosity between Informationalists and Student-Unionists. According to the Student-Unionists’ “Syllabus,” "wherever studentdom is divided into the erudite and the ignorant, masters and pupils, a synthesis must inevitably take place; thus Informationalism, based as it was on the concept of private knowledge, must succumb of its own contradictions as did Departmentalism before it. All information and physical plant would become the property of the Student Union; rank and tenure would be abolished, erudition and illiteracy done away with; since Founder and Finals were lies invented by professors to keep students in check, there were in reality no Answers: instead of toiling fearfully for the selfish goal of personal Commencement, a perfectly disciplined student body would live communally in well-regulated academies, studying together at prescribed hours a prescribed curriculum that taught them to subordinate their individual minds to the Mind of the Group.” The novel’s narrative is an epic journey emptied of everything but its form, an allegory reduced to a surface structure. The campus has come under the power of the WESCAC computer, which has absorbed teaching, administrative, librarian, and policing functions. Giles, a human boy raised by goats, believes he is the chosen “GILES” who will save studentdom from the WESCAC. He sets himself the task of matriculating, passing his Finals, and descending into the belly of WESCAC in order to dismantle or reprogram it. Giles preaches to those he meets along the way, but repeated failures in his quest cause him to change his academic theology from “Flunked who would Pass” to “Passed are the Flunked” before rejecting all such superficial distinctions between being passed and flunked. Of course all of this is an excuse for Barth’s indulgence in metafictional language-for-language’s-sake, a self-propelled, logorrheic narrative that demonstrates what Giles describes as “the miracle called story.” This story is offered to the reader in a mediated form as the “Revised New Syllabus,” a narrative that appears to be told from Giles’s point of view but is in fact a “computer-generated text” written by the WESCAC using fragments and reminisces of Giles entered onto magnetic tape.
Monday, May 10, 2010
In Material Markets, Donald MacKenzie uses actor-network theory to explore the strange new reality of contemporary finance. Michel Callon pioneered this “social studies of finance” approach, which offers a timely counterpart to the more famous field of “social studies of science” centered around the work of Bruno Latour. MacKenzie’s book demonstrates the inadequacy of traditional and Marxist theories of financialization, which make quantitative claims but ignore the qualitative innovations in finance, the new techniques and technologies that over the last thirty years have generated both new financial objects and entirely new financial markets. Throughout the book, MacKenzie maintains that finance’s notoriously abstract and fictive character is always grounded in and dependent on material markets, assemblages of men, machines, and techniques. In the book’s first substantial chapter, MacKenzie lays out “Ten Precepts for the Social Studies of Finance.” The first precept is that “facts matter.” Markets, like science, rely on the production and circulation of facts. Although facts in financial markets are obviously weaker than those in science, they must have a certain solidity and legitimacy. In particular, the liquidity of markets, the ability to purchase and sell at high speeds, often depends on facticity: “achieving liquidity typically requires standardization of the items traded and, crucially, a degree of consensus on their characteristics.” The second precept is that “actors are embodied.” Corporeality clearly matters in trading pits, where traders often come to physical blows. But corporeality remains important even in screen-based trading, where complex multitasking skills and attention capacities are crucial for success. The third precept is “equipment matters.” Equipment “changes the nature of the economic agent, of economic action, and of markets.” Equipment such as stock tickers and trading screens overcomes bodily limitations and reshapes markets. In addition to such physical technologies, “conceptual equipment” helps compensate for the informational limitations of human minds. Models may simplify reality, but they enable action and communication and sustain markets. The fourth precept is “cognition and calculation are distributed and material.” MacKenzie subscribes to Edwin Hutchins’ influential account of distributed cognition, which shows how “processes are ‘distributed’ in the sense that a given task is often performed not by a single unaided human being but by multiple human beings, objects, and technical systems.” The fifth precept is that “actors are agencements.” MacKenzie takes the term agencement from Michel Callon, who borrows it from Deleuze. In Callon’s version of actor-network theory, “actors are network effects.” Actors are assemblages, “sociotechnical combinations,” or agencements. Focusing on the “agencement making up an economic actor, rather than focusing exclusively on what one might call action’s glamorous agential peaks, broadens the field of view of the social-science investigation of finance, not just towards things but towards less high-status human beings.” MacKenzie therefore pays close attention to the back-office functions of bookkeepers and accountants, whose work underpins the more visible actions of traders. Precept six is “classification and rule following are finitist processes.” MacKenzie adopts the position of finitism, a theory that works through the aporias of Wittgenstein’s analysis of the problem of the rule for applying a rule. Finitism emphasizes the ongoing flexibility of the application of rules and the potential for redefining categories and measurements. Precept seven is “economics does things.” As MacKenzie has argued more fully in an earlier book, economics is “performative.” “An economic model . . . is sometimes not simply a representation of a market as an entity entirely separate from the model, but a tool used by market participants, and sometimes the widespread use of such a tool can change markets in consequential ways.” It is not that economic ideas directly affect markets, but that economics becomes “embodied in procedures and physical artifacts” with important effects. The example MacKenzie investigates at the end of the book is carbon-trading markets, which were in fact created by economists. Precept eight is “innovation isn’t linear.” Precept nine is “market design is a political matter.” Large forms of regulation clearly show this, but MacKenzie underscores that the principle needs to be applied to much more minute aspects of market design. “Apparently minor matters – ‘technicalities’, often technicalities little understood by non-participants – can have big effects. . . . An effective politics of markets – whether ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ in inspiration – needs to engage with such apparent ‘technicalities’, not just with the overall virtues and demerits of markets.” Precept ten is “scales aren’t stable.” As the political point notes, “A prejudice that impedes the development of a politics of markets . . . is the tendency to divide phenomena into small, ‘micro’ phenomena (details, technicalities, interpersonal interactions, and so on) and big, ‘macro’ phenomena (globalization, neoliberalism, capitalism, the international system of states, and so on) and to think of only the latter as political.” He argues we need to instead be ready to “open the black boxes” of such apparently minor technicalities. The rest of Material Markets consists of case studies of important new trends/areas of finance. The first case study observes a hedge fund and provides an interesting glimpse into the operation of these infamous entities. Before analyzing his observations, MacKenzie gives some helpful historical background on hedge funds. He shows how hedge funds emerged in order to counteract the Investment Company Act of 1940, which “made it illegal for investment companies to short sell (to sell securities they do not own, for example by borrowing them in the expectation that by the time they need to be returned their prices will have fallen) or to use leverage (to buy securities using borrowed funds).” The fund he observes primarily consists of five people in one office sitting around a desk filled with computer screens. The fund specializes in emerging markets, the issuing of bonds by countries with lesser economic reputations. This section is particularly helpful for understanding the current economic issues in Europe. He explains how the “capacity for successful bond issuance enhances a government’s freedom of action: money can be spent now – on infrastructure, education, health, war fighting, and so on – and repaid only in the future, and governments frequently pay the principal on existing bonds that have reached their maturity by issuing new bonds. The prices and coupon rates at which investors are prepared to buy bonds have a direct effect on a government’s debt-service costs, and thus on its budget balance and ultimately on the policy choices open to it.” “A key bond-market divide is between governments that are reckoned reasonably likely to default, and those whose default is regarded as effectively inconceivable.” Investors closely scrutinize the politics of the first camp, the group likely to default, while paying little attention to politics in the other camp. The book’s next case study is the explosive growth of derivatives. He notes the novelty of these markets: “As recently as January 1970, no organized financial-derivatives exchange existed anywhere in the world.” “The burgeoning since then of financial-derivatives exchanges has been one of the defining features of the massive transformation of the world’s financial markets. At the end of June 2006, exchange-traded derivatives totaling $84.4 trillion (the equivalent of around $13,000 for every human being on earth) were outstanding worldwide.” Derivatives can seem exceptionally abstract and unreal because they, as their name indicates, are derived from securities, which are relatively abstract themselves. “All financial securities are ‘virtual’ in the sense that their value lies not in their physical substance as paper certificates or entries in an electronic database but in the claims on future states of the world that they embody: rights to dividends from a corporation, to interest payments from a government, and so on. A derivative of such a security is thus an entity that derives its value from what it already an abstract claim, and so the development of derivatives can be seen as a further stage of the abstraction of monetary forms.” Pryke and Allen go so far as to claim that derivatives are “money’s ‘new imaginary.’” But MacKenzie reminds us that “virtuality is always a material effect, indeed an elaborate, sophisticated, and expensive one.” Most of the chapter therefore explores the “material production” of that virtuality. He traces the history of financial-derivatives markets from the futures markets in the early 1970s and outlines the major organizations involved. “The vast bulk of today’s financial-derivatives is in products that did not exist in 1970. These products, especially traded on organized exchanges, did not simply ‘evolve’. They are invented. Indeed, today’s financial-derivatives exchanges, especially the freshly established ones such as LIFFE, are the result of conscious, deliberate processes of design.” He notes that the collapse of the Bretton Woods system contributed to the creation of derivatives markets: such markets are used by hedgers to acquire a form of insurance against volatility, instability such as that which arose in exchange rates after the end of Bretton Woods. The next case study deals with artbitrage, which is “trading that aims to make low-risk profits by exploiting discrepancies in the price of the same asset or in the relative prices of similar assets.” In the past, arbitrage might have taken the form of noticing a difference in gold prices in different parts of the globe and buying in one place and selling for a profit at another. Contemporary telecommunication technologies have minimized those kinds of discrepancies. But, with the aid of advanced technologies, especially those providing speed, arbitrage remains a reality of markets. There is now something of an “arms race” in such technologies that can exploit microsecond differences in prices. As a result, firms will pay high prices just to have their computers physically close to markets so that they can exploit the most infinitesimal time differences. Arbitrage has also increased as the minimum quanta of prices has decreased, so that even smaller differences can be exploited (arbitrage occurs at a smaller scale when prices are measured by 16ths rather than, say, 8ths). The next chapter deals with the importance of measurement for financial markets, and takes a strong interest in practices of accounting. MacKenzie describes the ambiguities of corporate accounting and accounting classification. Accounting is supposed to represent the reality of the firm, but of course accounting procedures differ between nations. He also notes that “Financial reporting directly affects the economic health of corporations. A corporation that appears sound and profitable is attractive to investors and to lenders, while a bank that appears unsound is vulnerable to a bank run.” In this chapter, MacKenzie uses a finitist perspective to deal with what is known as “earnings management.” The final study traces the creation of emissions markets. MacKenzie concludes, “Emissions markets are politically attractive, making possible coalitions of ‘left-wing’ environmentalism and ‘right-wing’ pro-market sentiment. Yet to make them successful we need a politics of market design.” His concluding chapter more directly investigates what such a politics might look like. MacKenzie argues that small factors were important for causing the current economic crisis: “At the heart of an epochal event . . . were ‘technical’ matters such as mathematical models and credit ratings. . . . Yes, global imbalances and the influence of the neoliberal ideas matter, but so too does the gamut of phenomena of the kind discussed here, from bodily capacities such as broker’s ear to the algorithm that generates LIBOR.” Rather than falling back into pro or anti market positions, he hopes that a “public social science” might help broaden the range of “political engagement with markets” by making possible a “detailed politics of market design.”
Monday, May 3, 2010
Drawing from Italian operaism and autonomist Marxism, Crisis in the Global Economy offers a radically new approach to the current global economic meltdown. Most of the writers included in this excellent collection of essays have been involved in seminars held by the UniNomade network, so each text offers a variation on a collectively-constructed theoretical framework. Christian Marazzi’s The Violence of Financial Capitalism (a condensed version of which appears here) perhaps remains the best and most systematic articulation of these ideas, but this volume fills in details on topics such as rent, cognitive capitalism, and biocapitalism. The authors believe that the current financial crisis “is a new type of crisis.” But financial crises of course are not new. Giovanni Arrighi, drawing on Braudel, argues that financial expansions occur at a predictable point in the cycles of the capitalist world system. When investment in production is no longer attractively profitable, capital is channeled into financial markets, creating a phase of financialization that eventually must collapse because it does not solve the underlying problem of profitable production. For Arrighi, financial expansion is a “sign of autumn,” a sign of the decline of the current hegemon’s power and of the emergence of a new cycle of the system. The authors included in this volume don’t deny the validity of this framework for explaining the past, such as the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s, but they deny its applicability to the present crisis. Traditionally, finance has been represented as the opposite of “real” (by which most people mean industrial) production. According to this view, during the phase of financial expansion financial markets parasitically suck capital away from investment in production, an unhealthy arrangement that can only weaken or kill the economy in the long run. The authors of this volume, however, argue that the distinction between real and financial economies doesn’t hold up today. In an era when finance is “pervasive,” the “very distinction between ‘real economy’ and ‘financial economy’ (between ‘material expansion’ and ‘financial expansion’) is today unfounded from an analytic profile in the first place.” In today’s “social factory,” the production of value has escaped from the confines of the factory and is increasingly coextensive with the entire lives of individuals. According to Marazzi, “financialization is not an unproductive/parasitic deviation of growing quotas of surplus-value and collective saving, but rather the form of capital accumulation symmetrical with new processes of value production.” That is, “Financialization represents the adequate and perverse modality of accumulation of new capitalism.” Financialization is deeply embedded in contemporary biocapitalism and therefore cannot be overcome by merely exposing its “fictitious” nature or by a return to “real” production. As the boundary between real and financial economies is blurred, the distinction between profit and rent becomes unstable, and the authors describe what they term a “becoming-rent of profit.” In contemporary capitalism there is a “more general tendency of capital to transform profit into a rentier mechanism of drawing surplus-value from a position of exteriority in respect to production and/or founded on the creation of an artificial resource rarefaction.” The ten theses laid out in the collectively-authored “Nothing Will Ever be the Same” give a good sense of the innovative approach to finance found in this volume. The theses: “1. The Current Financial Crisis is a Crisis of the Whole Capitalistic System.” Because finance is pervasive, spreading across the terrain of society, substituting for the securities of the welfare state, and operating at the center of contemporary capitalist valorization, the financial crisis cannot be isolated from the rest of the economy. “2. The Current Financial Crisis Is a Crisis of the Measurement of Capitalistic Valorization.” During the era of Fordism, value could be measured through reference to socially average labor time and the costs of material production. But when the valorization process extends across the entire existence of the worker and immaterial labor becomes increasingly important, it becomes nearly impossible to measure value. During the late 90s it seemed as if value could be measured by performance on the financial markets, but the current crisis belies that standard. “3. The Crisis Is the Horizon of Development for Cognitive Capitalism.” The authors make a distinction between crises of saturation and crises of growth. A crisis of saturation, such as that of Fordism in the 1970s, occurs when a particular regime of accumulation, or a historical phase, exhausts its potential and enters into its descendent phase. Today, however, there is a crisis of growth. Cognitive capitalism, which tries to create artificial scarcity by privatizing the general intellect, has not been able to create a consistent regulatory mechanism. “Where capitalistic accumulation is reproduced in the subsumption of the common, the crisis becomes, in fact, a permanent process. In this framework, the very category of economic cycle should be radically rethought, in the light of the transformations in labor, the impossibility for capital to organize the productive cycle a priori and the shifts of the spatial-temporal coordinates determined by globalization. . . . This means that many roads are open. It is up to the will of transformation and the social movements’ political action to choose the right one.” “4. The Financial Crisis Is a Crisis of Biopolitical Control – A Crisis of Governance That Demonstrates a Systemic Structural Instability.” “The current financial crisis demonstrates than an institutional governance of the process of accumulation and distribution founded on finance is not possible.” Because of its speed, fluidity, and quantity, financialization escapes governance and is ultimately antithetical to the long term needs and desires of individuals. One result is that Keynesian policies of the past are ineffective today. The $5 trillion or so spent on economic recovery can’t compensate for the destruction of over $200 trillion on the market. At best, governments can try to create an atmosphere of trust that will stimulate the market. “5. The Financial Crisis Is a Crisis of Unilateralism and a Moment of Geopolitical Re-equilibrium.” In the past few decades, technology-based production has moved to the East and the global South, but the West has maintained economic power through financial hegemony. “The current financial crisis put an end to this spatial dystonia. Technological and financial supremacy are tending to rejoin one another on a geoeconomic level. As a result, cognitive capitalism as a paradigm of bioeconomic accumulation is becoming hegemonic even in China, India, and in the global South.” “6. The Financial Crisis Demonstrates the Difficulties of the Construction Process of the Economic European Union.” “7. The Financial Crisis Marks the Crisis of Neoliberal Theory.” “The current financial crisis shows how the capitalistic system is structurally unstable and how the free market theory is not able to affront such instability.” The freedom of the market is really only the freedom of those who have the money to consume, and “those that don’t have monetary resources (like, for example, many migrants) that allow them to create demand for goods or services in the market don’t exist from an economic point of view.” “8. The Financial Crisis Highlights Two Internal Contradictory Principles of Cognitive Capitalism: The Insufficiency of the Traditional Forms of Labor Remuneration and the Vileness of the Proprietary Structure.” Wages were central to the capital-labor compromise of Fordism, but wages are an inadequate form of remuneration when all of life becomes productive at the same time as more and more work becomes precarious. In fact, the Fordist wage relation was a historical anomaly, and the fight for higher wages should not be considered a timeless goal. The authors therefore support the creation of a guaranteed “basic income.” The authors also point out that cognitive capitalism contradicts its own foundations when it attempts to privatize the general intellect through things like copyright laws. But after admitting these are “reformist” proposals, the next thesis is: “9. The Current Financial Crisis Cannot be Resolved With Reformist Politics That Define a Renovated New Deal.” “Only the revival of strong social conflict on a supranational level can create the conditions to overcome the current state of crisis. We are facing an apparent paradox: to make new reformist perspectives and the relative stability of the capitalistic system possible, it is necessary for a joint action of the revolutionary sort, able to modify the axes on which the very structure of capitalist command is based.” They add, “We must then start to imagine a post-capitalist society, or better yet, re-elaborate the battle for welfare in the crisis as an immediate organization of the institution of the common. This doesn’t definitively eliminate the functions of political mediations but does definitely take them away from representative structures and absorbs them in the constituent power of autonomous practices.” “10. The Current Financial Crisis Opens New Scenarios of Social Conflict.” From the Greek revolts to conflicts in Spain, France (and I would add the U.S.), “We are dealing with overturning the ‘communism of capital’ into the ‘communism of general intellect,’ as a living force of contemporary society, able to develop a structure of commonfare and establish itself as an effective and real condition of human choice for freedom and equality. Between the ‘communism of capital’ and the institutions of the common there is no speculation or linear relation of necessity: it is, in other terms, about collectively re-appropriating produced social wealth and destroying the devices of subsumption and capitalistic command in the permanent crisis.”