A Time and a Place for Abstraction, Research Time, 12/06/2018

Over the last few years, I’ve read a decent chunk of marxist theory. I’ve read the good stuff – some of the original, a lot of Gramsci, too much Zizek, Laclau, Mouffe, a little bit of Lenin; the anarchists too, like Bakunin, Goldman, and the uncategorizable Rancière.

I’ve also come across scattered essays of the bad stuff. A lot of it is contemporary – not to say that it’s bad because it’s contemporary. It’s bad because it’s the casually-written stuff.

Even 100 years ago when political revolutionaries really did argue matters of profound philosophy in journals and magazines, most of those essays were kind of shit. We don’t remember the many, many people who filled the pages of those journals every day, the ones who only looked good when Gramsci hadn’t written that week.

The gold-plated promises of wealth and power.
Quality is always rare. Make of that what you want.

There’s one trend that I find unfortunate in a lot of the everyday theory writing in the marxist tradition. The word ‘capital’ gets taken for granted. A catchall term whose conception grows more and more vague every time it’s used. Which, in the sloppiest of marxist writing, is an omnipresent and omnipotent force controlling everything.

Anyone who treats the shorthand as anything more than shorthand isn’t worth reading. The point of understanding capital as the basis of a lot of social and economic problems isn’t to blame capital – it’s to understand the machineries of capital.

That’s why you always need to be an empiricist when you’re writing political and economic philosophy. You need to look at real engines of wealth to see what produces all that cash.

In Gilbert’s history of Cultural Studies, he writes that the field pretty accurately identified one serious problem with capital today. The major engines of wealth have become the boardrooms and trading floors of investment companies and stock exchanges.

They move the most money around the world. They power the global movement of money – even though it’s turned out that they can’t control it.

The dystopia is real. The dystopia has always been real.
More than that, the investment industry doesn’t even really create anything, says Gilbert. Not quite true, of course. The investment industry does create analytic, algorithmic, and other mathematical tools to manage and regulate those capital flows. But those are machines to move the money – not what actually powers the movement.

No, the sources of power for the financial industry come from the traditional industries of making things. Laboratories, streets, studios, factories, offices – these are the types of things that the investment industry invests in, speculates on.

As global money and trade flows move faster and faster, they grow fractally complex – new cultural, communication, and technological products develop at faster rates and spread more quickly around the world.

Communications technologies open up more possibilities and diversity in what’s on offer to people. More bandwidth means more niches – for cultural products like movies and television, and for all commodities, as people make themselves increasingly unique as more possibilities for expression become available.

The financial industry provides a massive and powerful flow of money to channel into this increasingly intense production. But the real crisis – corruption, embezzlement, breakdown – comes when the financiers think they’re the creators, not the funders. The money circles through the same few hands, expanding by handshake, while the actual creators of material and conceptual wealth are starved.

Then the collapse comes.

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