Monday, January 12, 2009

Finance and the Production of Subjectivity

Christian Marazzi’s Capital and Language was written well before the current crisis, but that does not mean that it does not offer some terms with which to understand the current crisis. Most importantly it offers a context for understanding what he calls “financialization.” Financialization marks a fundamental change in accumulation, shifting money from household savings and union run pension funds to the stock market. This of course “liberates” a great deal of money, freeing up flows for profits. More importantly, at least in my view, is that it transforms the terms of antagonism. The opposition between work and capital, between wages and profits, is transformed when workers look to the stock market for their future. This in some sense divides the worker faced with downsizing, an act that will cut off wages but increase stock value. As Marazzi succinctly puts it, “In the name of his interests as a shareholder the salaried employee (in the public or private sector) is prepared to fire himself if Wall Street should demand it.” This is not just an isolated phenomena, as Marazzi argues financialization generates profits by destroying salaries and stable employment through mergers and acquisitions.

It is the subjective dimension of this that interests me, the way that financialization can be understood as a production of subjectivity. Maurizio Lazzarato underscores the subjective dimension in Les Révolutions du Capitalisme. As Lazzarato writes, “The workers are caught in a relation of exploitation when they sell their labor power [force de travail] to an entrepreneur, but they are implicated within a majortarian dynamic [dynamique majoritaire], when, for example their revenues are invested in pension funds.” Lazzarato’s use of Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction of major and minor is crucial, as it stresses that the worker as a minor position is destroyed by investment. As Deleuze and Guattari write elsewhere, in capitalism the most disadvantaged creature invests in the economy. Of course apologists for capital would argue that the extension of stock options to workers represents a massive democratization of wealth. However, I would argue that it is a less a matter of redistributing wealth than a transformation of the appearance of the economy. As Alain Badiou writes: “what is counted is the level of the stock market, the Euro, financial investment, competition, and so on: the figure of the worker, on the other hand, counts for nothing.” The economy is counted in terms of the market, wages count for nothing. This transformation of the account of the economy is also a transformation of subjectivity, we see ourselves as investors or potential investors.

If the current crisis is going to mean anything politically it must become a crisis of how capital is counted, and how we see ourselves as subjects of capital.


Nate said...

hey there UN,

Respectfully, I'd like to challenge some of this. You write that antagonism changes "when workers look to the stock market for their future" and of " downsizing (...) will cut off wages but increase stock value." I don't think this all that different from any perspective that sees capital and labor as compatible. From the point of view of any such perspective, the health of the firm (or industry, or nation/national market) is the health of the workers, at least in the long term. Workers who believed such things could think almost exactly the same things you and Marazzi mention here (the encouragement of such beliefs is I think part of what mid-twentieth century far left critics of unions were on about, as many unions encouraged this outlook). Arguably, these dynamics are implied in waged labor from the get go, or at least within waged labor when generalized - insofar as
the only access to means of subsistence is money, the only access to money is wages, and access to wages is at least in part indexed to the health of one's employer then these dynamics could be present.

I also think a big question with regard to Marazzi on this (and perhaps Lazzarato though I'm not sure) is whether or not workers actually think all of this is the case - do they see themselves that way or not. I don't know that we can deduce these perceptions from people's behaviors.

take care,

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, I definitely see your point about wages, and one could definitely make the point that strategies for effacing the difference between capital and worker are as old as capital itself. The wage, the contract, etc. all present capital and worker as two entities unified in the same enterprise. It does seem to me that what Marazzi calls "financialization" entails a shift, an intensification, of this strategy.

Eric said...

Nate, while you are right to insist that the wage remain a crucial part of the equation, I don't see how you can argue that the ascendancy of financial capital hasn't made a difference. Unless you want to argue that the forms and techniques adopted and used by capital are in themselves neutral and without their own singular transformations. California public employees, for example, are constituted by a different subjectivity now that a large part of their functioning is determined and mediated by Calpers.

What exactly the effects on subjectivity are hasn't been explored fully enough by any theory I'm aware of, but I don't see how you can say that under financialization things aren't "all that different." Finance, as UN says, intensifies the ways that capital and labor are said to share the same interests, and I would say, hesitatingly and for starters, that it does this by (further) abstraction. Money no longer has the single, material face of the boss, as Negri had it in 1978, but has the face of the boss and the faceless, absent presence of the mutual-fund manager. Employees still have the complicated relationship with the firm that you talk about, but there's another level on top of this that is added by financialization. Employees can still think of employees at other firms as competition, but there is a different kind of relation that is involved when you see them as drags on your stock portfolio.

It would be fair to point out that not all workers, or even a majority of them, have direct interests in the stock market. But even those that don't are touched by in some way by the demands of financialization: the generalization of risk, the changed principles involved in calculations of all kinds, etc. These are all new things, even if they aren't completely novel or didn't exist in other forms. It's hard for me to see how they wouldn't make a difference.

unemployed negativity said...

It seems to me that the wage functions as both a point of antagonism, the assertion of worker's needs, and a point of apparent compatibility, connecting wages to increases in productivity. Financialization, stock options, works somewhat differently. The key point in the quote from Marazzi is the worker who sees his or her stock increase when he or she is laid off. Finance does not just assert the compatibility of labor and capital, but creates an inverted world where it is capital, not labor, that creates wealth. Wealth that is created through the destruction of labor: boyouts, mergers, and lay-offs being one way to increase stock value.

Nate said...

hi Eric,

I didn't mean to say that the ascendancy of finance hasn't made a difference. If I said anything that gave you that impression, I take it back. I think financialization is hugely important. (Arrighi has some good stuff on this, tied to a neat other way of thinking Marx's M-C-M.) I think what you say in your final paragraph is all really important stuff.

What I'm not convinced of is what I take to be an unsubstantiated empirical claim here about workers' consciousness - I'm not convinced that this stuff goes on all that much.

One historical parallel - in the second world war some US unions signed patriotic 'no strikes during the war' pledges. I'm told they were pretty popular with members of these unions (this comes from Martin Glaberman's book War Time Strikes), who voted yes on them. We could make all kinds of claims about workers' subjectivity based on this (including a new institutional interest in not having the money they paid in union dues be taken away from the union via government imposed penalties). The thing is, shortly after these pledges were signed, loads of those workers walked off the job in a big wave of wildcat strikes.

Another parallel - one argument used by proponents of workers' compensation in the 1910s and early 20s was that workers comp would blunt the causes for industrial strife by removing a source of antagonism (common law cases over injuries) and replacing it with easier and faster methods, methods which workers would have an interest in seeing succeed - in part because they'd be funded by workers' wages and in part because workers would be tied in to risk pools shared with other workers and with employers. It seems to me that the folk calling for change along those lines (and they succeeded) we making a claim like the one made in this discussion. As far as I can tell, none of those effects actually took place.

We could make similar claims about the creation of the current scheme of industrial relations in the US with the Wagner Act, or about the Social Security Act giving people an interest in the success of the state. In all of those cases the move would be, as I think the move is in this conversation, a logical deduction about forms of agency and collectivity based on policy changes and structural changes. Those deductions are totally reasonable and they may make useful hypotheses to set out and see if they're true or not, but that they are logical doesn't make them actually true. That's the point I'm trying to make with the historical examples (and I'm sorry if they sound pedantic, really not my intent), that these types of generalizations about workers subjectivity - about the political composition of the class - should be treated with a fair bit of skepticism when the main evidence is drawn from changes in the technical composition of the production process and from institutional structures and laws in force.

None of which is to say financialization doesn't matter or that nothing is new under the sun.

take care,