Sunday, April 20, 2014

Later Capitalism?

This week I found myself reading Jameson in conversation with Hardt and Negri.  In many ways it seems that while late/finance capitalism/post-modernity is argued to be the last stage of capitalism, the information economy seems to be a next stage.  
For example,  the information economy helps make the move from M-C-M to M-M’ more pronounced.  The only commodity many companies need to profit is the information or attention of consumers.  My idle attention clicking on facebook quizzes provides buzzfeed with a unique mass  of demographic information that they can then sell.  If you invest in information gathering mechanisms, (often a minimal investment) you can profit with little to no effort.
Finally,  Jameson notes that “We have often been told, however, that we now inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism.”  However,  in the information economy, not only has time become irrelevant (micro traders are actually able to sell stocks before they finish buying them to make a profit on the surge in sales they caused  -- all without the risk of ever owning the stock), but in digital environments space is rendered largely meaningless.  As more commodities and business become digital, economic exchanges become entirely unbounded by space and time, meaning it is only information or affect that has any meaningful value (rather than labor time – which includes the time to move across goods across space). 

What all of these seem to suggest to me is that we are entering some phase of capitalism after late/finance capitalism.  As the example of the micro trades shows, even the residuals of finance capital are moving to logics of speed and information exchange.  While this can be construed as good, as the information economy has more space for the resistance to capitalism (as affect can never be fully commoditized), it also seems troubling if one believes that the moments to break capitalism are at moments of flux and transition (Clover).  It seems we may have missed the moment of transition from finance capital (US economic hegemony) to information capital (a more global and decentered market) and thus may missed a moment for greater opportunity of revolution.


  1. I keep bouncing H&N and Jameson around in my head as well:

    I was reviewing some class notes and came across Marx’ developmental history (also recounted by Jameson): Primitive Communism to the emergence of Private Property to Slave Societies to the Emergence of the Aristocracy to Feudalism Proper to the Emergence of a Merchant Class to Capitalism and the emergence of the Proletariat. In “Culture and Finance Capital,” Jameson makes a solid argument that Finance Capital is a natural, logical, even dialectic progression—an outcropping in the internal evolution of capital itself:

    “Speculation—the withdrawal of profits from the home industries, the increasingly feverish search, not so much for new markets (those are also saturated) as for the new kind of profits available in financial transactions themselves and as such—is the way in which capitalism now reacts to and compensates for the closing of its productive moment” (251).

    Indeed, anyone that participates in this economy in any material way would find it difficult to argue with the statement that “the focus of the operation is no longer on the commodity but on money” (259). He then pivots to a discussion of the speed of film images as an example of the change of social relations that aid and abet this progression toward abstract money.

    I am wondering now if finance capitalism doesn’t actually represent something altogether different. Is this still capitalism? Or is this capitalism in name only? If so, what are the consequences? What are the opportunities? As discussed by many that we have read to this point like Hardt and Negri, 19th century industry is fading. The mid-twentieth century messaging of markets, market testing, and exceptionalist messaging (e.g. any speech by Reagan or Thatcher) is being abandoned. One need not look beyond Lincoln to see municipal mediocrity in motion. I am increasingly wondering when I will hear about some catastrophe in the Larson building with its dangerous vehicle routing plan, elevators possessed by the devil, etc. Industry, in regard to that which still produces commodity, does seem to be abstracted in that money is disconnected from the material is ever increasing ways. Maybe. All I will say as an example is that as we are in class discussing these topics, I am paying three or four dollars to park my truck in the Larson building—a high price for a building I fully expect to simply fall down one day.

    But abstraction of commodity isn’t really the significant change in this process. In addition the hours that form surplus value, finance capital coerces wage earners into voluntarily giving their own money to the market—not the company per se, but the market as an abstraction through investment collectives (401Ks, etc.). To my mind, nothing exemplifies D&G’s concept of flows like the financial markets. Everything and anything can happen to any industry at any time. Where I am from, I can attest that at least half of the corner gas stations built in the late 1980s and early 1990s were boarded up about fifteen years later. Some of these were torn town and small retail spaces build, spaces that have never been occupied. They are now closed with bank repo signs stapled to the plywood. And yet, these banks are part of the financial market. (Note: the churches build on those old sites seem to be doing just fine.) All this can certainly be folded into the concept of circulation. Interestingly, from what I read, the financial markets are one of the only things (if not the only thing) to have recovered from the great recession. If the workers are now complicit in the abstraction (albeit foretold) of money begetting money, then is this still capitalism. Or does this false god of perverse collectivism call for new paradigms? Do we modify and entrench in line with Jameson? Or do we turn the corner with H&N? And if we do, will Hegel be there? (He’s somewhere; I know that much.)

  2. I definitely think you’ve hit something in updating Jameson’s piece in the moment of the information economy. The article still rings true though it was written in 1997; the rise of geocaching, big data, & this deeply connected form of networked society pushes on his work about the impact of finance capital a bit.

    You state that exchanges become unbounded by space & time due to the instantaneous nature of the digital world. In your example about stock trading, I’m totally on board. However, I do think Jameson is on to something with this new territorialization. “Capitalism’s movement must be seen as discontinuous but expansive. With each crisis, it mutates into a larger sphere of activity and a wider field of penetration, of control, investment, and transformation” (p. 248). Part of the information economy is the collection of background data on pieces like mobile phones. Because we keep the devices on us at all times, companies have found ways to turn points of data on our location and purchases into money, as well as instilled a new social relation to such technology. A notification from Subway Surfers at 3am may jolt me awake, moving me affectively to check my phone very physically.

    Furthermore, I’m not sure I’m willing to just call a lack of attention in your observation of the finance-to-information transition a failure. Shouldn’t capitalism, within whatever reiteration it may be on currently, hold the tools for its own demise? Is that not the (false?) hope? It may be this sort of think that gets us in these moments of saying “Okay guys. Things are reeeeal crappy. This is the last phase of capitalism until it goes kaput.” I don’t feel as if we have necessarily lost a moment for revolution as you’ve put forward; maybe it’s a tad too naively Benjaminian of me, but I want to believe history can/will be repurposed for the present, for revolution. We haven’t lost anything through the lived experience of this transition; if something is useful, it’ll bubble up. It’ll be available. Indeed, we have just huge piles of information laying around now. Perhaps we can repurpose it for revolution instead of the reiteration & expansion of capitalism?

  3. Robert, to your point: I think of hedge funds and investment banks as the puppeteers of globalization: you can't have a play without them, whether it's high tech, oil & gas, or manufacturing companies. The other major point here is that most international business deals are done with banks of "dominant" countries with advanced legal systems (because if the shit hits the fan, they feel their rights will be better enforced in German or American courts), which reinforces the division between rich and poor nations in a global economy.

  4. Tom, maybe we can unpack this over beer after the semester ends. It seems like anytime we make gestures toward globalization of any sort that H&N are brought into the discussion, and with them we have access to more tools of potential resistance. In terms of the law, as you define it (and with which I agree) it seems like it is in the service of finance capital. I confess that I don't know the nuance of German law, but I do know that there may be nothing more abstract that the concept of "rights" in the American legal system. When Mitt Romney said that corporations were people, I think that this may be the worst thing that could happen to a corporation. But your reference to "puppeteers" I find interesting because it seems as though on the one hand that nobody is driving the bus (like Game of Thrones). But again, if no one is driving the bus, then am I not letting dam Smith's "Invisible Hand" sneak back into my thought process.


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