Monthly Archives: January 2011

Kunkel’s LRB article about David Harvey and crisis

From this LRB article, which more or less digests Harvey’s 1982 book Limits of Capital.

Marx proposed that ‘the tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself,’ and Harvey glosses the idea: ‘The necessary geographical expansion of capitalism is … to be interpreted as capital in search for surplus value. The penetration of capitalist relations into all sectors of the economy, the mobilisation of various “latent” sources of labour power (women and children, for example), have a similar basis.’ Hence both the involution and the imperialism of capital, commodifying the most intimate of formerly uncommodified practices (education, food preparation, courtship) as well as sweeping formerly non-capitalist regions (China and Eastern Europe) into the global market.

The expansion is always to accommodate the surplus value that is unaccounted for on the demand side — nothing of value there to exchange for it in order to realize the profit. So capital absorbs new spaces and makes further claims on time, on future production (through credit).

I’m interested in social media as a manifestation of the subsumption process, the means by which “intimate uncommodified practices” become susceptible to commodification, circulation, valorization, etc. The quest for new profit opportunities, essentially — enclosing commons.

Also interested in how acceleration serves capital’s “overproduction” crises. The acceleration of exchange appears to absorb more production, and allow for valorization to exponentially expand, while at the same time suspending more money capital in the process. The danger for capitalism is always the money and commodities will cease circulating, as capital is critically a process, is always in motion in order to be at all. Static capital is not capital at all within capitalism; it is a pile of worthless shit.

Kunkel discusses three aspects of the Marxist “falling rate of profit” thesis.
1. full employment gives labor too much bargaining power (disproved by flexible capital in globalized system)
2. organic composition of capital shifts: “given increased technological and organisational efficiency, for using relatively less labour than capital in production. Since profitability reflects the ‘rate of exploitation’ – or the ratio of the surplus value produced by the worker to the wages he receives – using less labour relative to capital diminishes profitability, unless capital goods become cheaper or exploitation is ramped up. This problem too can be solved, at least in principle: the capital/ labour ratio can simply be rejigged by deploying more labour relative to capital.” I think this problem also gets solved with “fictitious labor” — immaterial labor invested in symbol/semantic production; and then through labor collected by capital through online networks without requiring the payment of wages. Need to think about this more, but the appeal of digitality for capital is that it allows for near infinite exploitation of labor per unit of hard constant capital. The network effect inverts the organic composition problem. (Would love someone’s help/advice on what to read on that topic.) Social networks allow technology to increase the amount of labor that goes into a commodity, because the “commodity” is reshaped as a bottomless pool of information, an ever-refreshing occasion for data collection; the data becomes the product, the digital medium the occasion and means for data circulation. The circulation process becomes the source of utility, of use value, of pleasure. Am I on to anything with this?
3. underconsumption — a restatement of the missing Surplus Value issue. Not enough paid out in wages to allow for the full realization of profit in exchange. The mother of all contradictions, as Kunkel would have it. Could be solved by ever expanding luxury consumption, but marginal utility of money declines as personal wealth increases, also positional goods and potlatch destruction attract more of the wealth, taking it out socially necessary investment circuit. Another way of saying that overaccumulation has occurred — capital cannot be invested profitably; it can only be devalued — but whose? “In social terms, this will take the form of a contest between creditors and debtors over who is to suffer more devaluation.”

Not sure why this crisis is not solved by “quantitative easing” up until the point of inflation. This would allow for accelerated exchange in order to valorize capital. That gets you the Freidmanite idea of matching the money supply growth to the overall rate of growth.

Not so sure about this either:

The relationship between credit and commodities is in this way translated into spatial terms as an uneasy rapport between one kind of capital, highly mobile or liquid, and another kind – ‘fixed capital embedded in the land’ – defined by its inertness. Here, in the latent conflict between migratory finance capital and helplessly stationary complexes of fixed capital, including not only factories and office buildings but roads, houses, schools and so on, Harvey has found a contradiction of capitalism overlooked by Marx and his heirs.

New capitalism is all about flexibility, mobile capital finding sites of profit. “‘The disjunction of the quest for hypermobility and an increasingly sclerotic built environment (think of the huge amount of fixed capital embedded in Tokyo or New York City) becomes ever more dramatic.’”

This analysis depends on the extent to which fetish about land — that its value always goes up — is widespread. Misrecognizing housing as an investment rather than a commodity good. It depends how seriously we consider land to be better form of collateral than other assets. “Harvey’s bold and ingenious solution is to propose that, under capitalism, ground rent – or the proportion of property value attributable to mere location, rather than to anything built or cultivated on the land – becomes a ‘pure financial asset’” — I kind of suspect that is pure assertion, a speculative postulate necessary for the subsequent analysis. The “spatio-temporal fix” theory sounds a lot like Austrian-ish “recalculation” — investment in future production that turns out to be unwanted. Think the dematerialization of capital rescues it from its contradictions, not spatio-temporal fixes. The material detritus of the circulation process ceases to be capital when it ends up devalued in the hands of the end consumer — what isn’t written off as “consumption” of that material is just deadweight loss for the consumer. That is to say, this sounds about right: “Devaluation, being ‘always on a particular route or at a particular place’, might serially scourge the earth even as capital in general, loyal to no country, remained free to pursue its own advantage.”

This seems like the key paragraph to me — “crude” as it may be:

But it is the broader and more systematic Marxist perspective that ultimately and properly contains Keynesianism within it, and a crude Marxist catechism may be in order. Where does an excess of savings come from? From unpaid labour – for example, that of Chinese or German workers. And why would such funds inflate asset bubbles rather than create useful investment? Because capital pursues not ‘high social returns’, but high private returns. And why should these have proved difficult to achieve, except by financial shell-games? Keynesians complain of an insufficiency of aggregate demand, restraining investment. The Marxist will simply add that this bespeaks inadequate wages, in the index of a class struggle going the way of owners rather than workers.

That is something clear to rally people with. Profit is being extracted from the social system by capitalists, who choose to sit on it or compete with one another in status games or use it in high-finance gambling games that don’t yield productive activity but rather lead to zero-sum redistribution.

The other game, in theory, is to have banks give credit to the poor so that they can consume the surplus, as long as they creditors don’t get wise to the flimsy quality of the credit — suppressed wages are replaced by credit until banks refuse to lend, don’t think they can squeeze it out of the debtors. This is the classic Ponzi scheme/bubble scenario, which inevitably happens when investment becomes speculation — think Minsky and Fisher might be as apt as Marx and Harvey on this subject.

cocktail napkin notes about personal branding

1, Branding is a culture-wide idiom now for meaning-making. It provides the terms by which we conceive of and interpret the artistic, the authentic. It suggests the means of self-production, how to reflexively grasp the contours of the self and set goals for its elaboration. No longer dictated by tradition, the self can be conceived along the lines of a firm, with no limits to its growth or its lines of business.

2. Branding is a commodified and reified form of meaning, always already conceived for a market; it is meaning that is given coherence by the anticipated market. A personal brand is a deliberately commodifed form of self that anticipates the market’s verdict to guide its development. Branding is meaning abstracted, decontextualized, reified. It is meta-meaning, an emodiment of the possibility to mean, with nothing particularly significant about the specific meaning evinced by any particular brand. The specifics are arbitrary; what matters is the market share and attention and loyalty it can garner, not what it putatively says.

3. Naomi Klein, recalling her No Logo in a Baffler article, notes that “creating meaning was the new act of production” for companies in the new economy — reminiscent of Coca Cola’s CEO declaring the beverage maker a “media company.” As manufacturing jobs went abroad, the creative-class strata of jobs remained, the elaborate facets of brand management, marketing and design.

4. Brand equity is much more concrete and relevant to decisionmaking now, with the internet designed to measure it and actualize it, defining it with precision as a quantity (a number of hits, or followers, or searches, or what have you) rather than as nebulous balance-sheet estimate, or a vague quality of good will. Brands, thanks to the internet, are becoming means for rationally measuring communicative impact, for eradicating the nebulous guesswork of traditional marketing. Branding is embodied persuasion, the attention economy’s equivalent of hard currency.

5. Brands are measurable concrete clusters of meaning, and their reach (the attention they can secure across a population) is a kind of brand equity that can be used to make rational calculations about risk and reward. It attempts to assimilate the mysterious process of self-fashioning and soulcraft into capitalist calculation, the sort of logic verified by social experience as “true” and practical and “realistic.” It is not “realistic” to not regard oneself as a brand. It is an impractical romanticism, to be ridiculed.

6. The personal brand seems capable of capturing and controlling the risk we face in identity formation, giving us a calculus by which to proceed. This empties the self of its effervescent spontaneity, rendering it practically flexible instead; it can always be judged in terms of brand strategy regardless of the level of calculation in the moment. Retroactively, experiences are made to seem like brand-building ploys; anticipating this, we strategize more and more, let that frame of reference subsume more and more intimate and private behavior.

7. Wilde’s link of socialism to unlimited individualism suggested this line of thought: Personal branding may be a manifestation of what the fabric of everyday life would be in a socialist society, in which it would incumbent on every individual to make explicit and manifest what his unique capabilities are, so that society could make the most use of them. There would be no hiding in corporate structures in meaningless wage work, no separating the work self from the private self. One would have to be an inveterate self-promoter to secure the social resources to fulfill one’s potential, or to even develop the potential, expand the scope of ambition. Personal branding is an attempt to define one’s unique blend of traits and interests as undeniably socially necessary. We need to justify our right to exist through some social code, some language which would most likely resemble branding. Self-marketing will not be eradicated but universalized in some utopian conceptions of socialism. Self-exploitation would supplant capitalist exploitation, which may be why some view digital sharecropping, volunteer free labor and the like as a revolutionary practice.

8. With the infiltration of the branding metaphor into our concepts of identity, branding can be misapprehended as one of the surest routes to self-knowledge — the way to get to know oneself is to trace out one’s abilities in terms of a brand and brand equity. This sort of thinking produces a reinforcing feedback loop. It seems empirical, the real self, socially validated and tested, supported and understood, not conjectural or provisional though certainly not fixed. Branding is a hermaneutic for identity and its social impact. It delimits the self to social impact and makes that impact interpretable.

9. Wrapped up in mediation and symbols; in the tenuous self and not the structuring systems that shape its form, its everyday reality. (?)

10. Brands are the total breakdown of communal collective identity, of relational identity. The personal brand obviates even the possibility of a “role player” sort of identity as in a traditional community. The personal brand grows itself on a balance sheet, and it is not limited by the context of a particular community. Like capital, it is theoretically infinite, which is why it appears preferable to the communal identity.

11. Ideas and innovation, immaterial wealth is credit coded in symbols and promises that steal material wealth from the future.

12. Flight from industrial materiality is a way of robbing the future, deferring materiality’s limits (?)

13. Gamification seems like a another way to cement personal branding template — leveling up, quantifying skills, doling out measured rewards, etc. Game mechanics are analogous to personal branding techniques

dialectical thinking about new capitalism, social media

A key question for me is whether social media “solves” the contradictions of new capitalism that shifts all sorts of risk onto workers while disembodying itself or whether it facilitates that brand of capitalism’s emergence. I suppose it does both at once, which is why it has managed to thrive. That which facilitates the change in capitalism also ameliorates the change for subjects within capitalism. Social media creates new opportunities for capital while it creates new mechanisms of solace for the increasingly isolated subject. Social media extends the compensations of consumerism for the meaningless sphere of production. We lose real skills of production, gain skill in making/communicating our self.

new capitalism, social media

Miscellaneous thoughts inspired by Richard Sennett’s Culture of New Capitalism:

1. Information technology deskills communication. It takes away the craft involved and makes it a brute force proposition — matter of quantity and filtering rather than precision.

2. The ubiquity of advertising discourse and branding allows retailers to get rid of its own salesforce that once served as intermediary between consumer and goods, teaching them in a local context what to want and how to use it and what it is for. Now we rely on national advertising and personal networks for this information. It allows retailers to be big warehouses of stuff, like Wal-Mart.

3. Consumerism legitimates the subjectivity new relations of production require. It emphasizes future potential rather than achieved skill. The ability to desire new things instead of appreciate what one already has more thoroughly mirrors the denigration of skills in the new economy, which stresses flexibility, team building, starting over with skills development as the firm demands.

the flexible organization puts a premium on portable human skills, on being able to work on several problems with a shifting cast of characters, cutting loose action from context. The search for talent, in particular, focuses on people with a talent for problem solving no matter the context, a talent which skirts becoming too ingrown. Potential ability emphasizes the prospect of doing things one has yet to do; achievement and mastery are selfconsuming,the contexts and contents of knowledge used up in being used. Consumption of goods plays a key role in complementing and legitimating these experiences.

4. Sennett argues that “new capitalism” — post-Fordism or whatever you want to call it — changes workers relationship to time. That is, in its emphasis on flexibility and short-term goals and its dismissal of institutional culture and bureaucratic mediation, it shortens the scope of institutional time. Under old bureaucratic capitalism, a more stable work life supplied a coherent life narrative to workers and engendered committment, to the firm and to the delimited identity.

The secret of this militarized capitalism lay in time — time structured so that people formed a life narrative and social relations within the institution. The price individuals paid for organized time could be freedom or individuality; the “iron cage” was both prison and home.

I wonder if social media now supplies a means for organizing people’s experience of institutional time as real time — the logical end point of new capitalism’s development; which suggests Facebook is the ne plus ultra of the new capitalist firm). Does it supply users with an instantaneous sense of narrative agency that must then be constantly refreshing with further updates — all this to compensate for the loss of less immediate and palpable but far more secure narrative agency derived from a stable life plan. “Insecurity is not just an unwanted consequence of upheavals in markets; rather, insecurity is programmed into the new institutional model. That is, insecurity does not happen to a new-style bureaucracy, it is made to happen.” There needs to be counterveiling forces to this insecurity.

5. Sennett argues that new capitalism takes away the worker’s sense of being useful — institutional knowledge is neglected or destroyed, and firm organization and new communications technology allows for orders to be sent out wihtout workers mediating them or moderating them in accordance to their experience. They lose “voice” in Hirschman’s sense. Again, social media compensates by permitting an ersatz usefulness through sharing — social capital through voluntary participation, as though the nature of what is volunteered is as immaterial as the nature of what’s consumed is immaterial to the pleasures of self it can facilitate. In capitalist society, capital perverts our sense of what is useful to what is profitable — a worker has value to the extent of contributing marginally to the firm’s profitability. “If only reformers could accept that usefulness is a public good, they could engage with the anxiety and fear of uselessness spawned by the most dynamic sectors of the modern economy.”

Social media offers a concrete alternative to that ideology of value. But when social media in private hands means that control over the idea of “usefulness” remains private, subject to manipulation for other than the general, public good. Facebook can instigate sharing for marketing purposes, not out of social necessity; this undermines the social recognition that social media can otherwise organize. It becomes a field for personal branding within the capitalist ideology of value (profit) rather than a place to reorchestrate community hollowed out by capitalism.

6. Much childhood nostalgia is a nostalgia for the limits dependence imposed on us and for the deprivation that forced us to discover internal resources to compensate. How limits opened up the imagination, the exact opposite of how marketing encourages us to imagine the freedom of having no limit to what we can consume or be.

7. Sennett make the case that a return to craftsmanship can return the ideal of commitment to the lives of individuals — an ideal systematically stripped by the flexible/precarious regime of new capitalism:

We’ve seen why commitment is in increasingly scarce supply in the new capitalism, in terms of institutional loyalty. The sentiment would be irrational — how can you commit to an institution which is not committed to you? Commitment is equally difficult in the new culture’s recipe for talent. Mental mobility eschews getting deeply involved; ability is focused on operational technique, as in the SAT, an exercise in problem solving rather than problem finding. Which means that a person becomes disengaged with the reality beyond his or her own control. Commitment poses a more profound question about the self-as-process. Commitment entails closure, forgoing possibilities for the sake of concentrating on one thing. You might miss out. The emerging culture puts enormous pressure on individuals not to miss out. Instead of closure, the culture counsels surrender — cutting ties in order to be free, particularly the ties bred in time.

This plays out across all sortos personal as well as professional relationships — and most important, it plays out in our relationship to ourselves.

Personal prestige as strategic confusion

In Culture of New Capitalism Richard Sennett makes a good point about how prestige manifests itself in new precarious-labor world.

A child of privilege can afford strategic confusion, a child of the masses cannot. Chance opportunities are likely to come to the child of privilege because of family background and educational networks; privilege diminishes the need to strategize. Strong, extensive human networks allow those at the top to dwell in the present; the networks constitute a safety net which diminishes the need for long-term strategic planning. The new elite thus has less need of the ethic of delayed gratification, as thick networks provide contacts and a sense of belonging, no matter what firm or organization one works for. The mass, however, has a thinner network of informal
contact and support, and so remains more institution dependent. It’s sometimes said that the new technology can somewhat correct this inequality, electronic chatrooms and affinity groups supplying the information a young person would need to seize the moment. In the work world, at least at the moment, this is not the case. Face-to-face matters. This is why techies go to so many conventions, and, more consequently, why people working from home, connected to the office only by computer, so often are left out of informal decision gathering and decision making.

A key question is whether online social networks like Facebook have changed this at all. I suspect Facebbok reinforces weak ties for the masses and makes their potentially strong ties weaker; that makes existing strong social-capital ties of the privileged relatively stronger — they have “real” connections instead of the generalized fake ones materialized online. Friendship itself becomes a class privilege, a class marker; everyone else is left with competing brands and strategic partnerships.

"Terrorist advertising"

I thought the slogans from this art project are all pretty interesting propositions:

ALL ADVERTISING CREATES THE ILLUSION THAT YOU ARE FREE TO CHOOSE

THE COPY HAS MORE POWER THAN THE ORIGINAL

TERRORIST ADVERTISING DECONSTRUCTS THE FAMILIAR IMAGE AND FEEDS IT BACK INTO THE SYSTEM

ORIGINALITY EXISTS ONLY AS A FIRST TIME EXPERIENCE FOR AN INDIVIDUAL

THE CONSUMER NOW HAS THE CHOICE OF BECOMING THE CREATOR OR DESTROYER OF THE ILLUSION

The last slogan encapsulates what is so heinous about “co-creation.”

Juliet Schor’s Plenitude

I found this attempt to rebrand voluntary simplicity as a kind of wealthiness unconvincing. Schor hopes we will eschew growth and income as measures of prosperity and embrace more nebulous concepts, like how meaningfully our time is spent. Though I agree people should consume less, work less if they can, enjoy their work more, slow their consumption in general, and so on, I don’t think impending environmental disaster will motivate them to do it. Yes, everybody would probably be happier and better off — but the same would be true if we all became meditating Buddhists. Yet we are not all Buddhists. We can not will ourselves into taking a different view of what it means to be happy, or what happiness required — that is conditioned into us as we come into our subjectivity and requires a great deal of sacrifice and discomfort to alter. Some manage to achieve it, but they are by definition extraordinary. Most want to cling to the kinds of pleasures and ideals that first brought them to themselves.

Sustainability is not sexy, and there is no point trying to make it seem so. Better that the concept retain its critical, adversarial edge, rather than be warped to fit with the prevailing consumerist spirit of self-preoccupation, consumerism, and abundance fetishism.

Sustainability, no matter how sexed up, is not enough in the face of the ideology of income and consumerism and symbolic goods and personal branding and so on, which I think the ideology of collaborative consumption colludes with more than undermines.

Schor raises the interesting point that prosperity erodes the idealized community of yesteryear, in which a kind of forced gift economy was necessary for collective survival. Instead we have temporary communities of affinity, which bear with them no responsibilities and can feel shallow.

I’m skeptical that forcing economic relations can replicate the lost relations of community that were forced on people when the world was less prosperous and technologically advanced — when “convenience” didn’t yet breed isolation but the necessity of dependence made people dream of that possibility. People have used income to reject community, and Schor implicitly suggests that they are going to have to re-accept community as environmental catastrophe strips us of income. (yet at the same time she suggests productivity gains from technology will make us all time-wealthy — not sure I understand how that works, why that can’t translate into conventional income measures.)

Essentially, Schor wants us to shift to an economy that generates less in profit without changing capitalist relations of production, which seems to avoid the source of the problem that has saddle us with environmental crisis in the first place.