Crisis and Dynamism: against the return to value

talk delivered May 21, 2009 to York Socialists (University of York)

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As the Japanese critic Kojin Karatani noted, “the recent casino capitalism…seems to indicate that people no longer believe in the rewards of diligent production and fair exchange.”[1]  But as Karatani suggests, this common disdain for the ‘excess and greed’ of banking and finance is today the diversionary code-work of a failure to grasp our current predicament. Critics from several angles today place blame on “deregulation,”[2]  a catch-all term whose consequences are summarized as the separation of autonomizing finance capital from its real base, or in other words, a system adapted to the spontaneous creation of “fictitious” (in place of concrete) value. Deregulation becomes the real agent for a dizzying world of speculation, over-leveraging, asset inflation, ‘casino’ behavior, and the abandonment of what Karatani called – with more than a little bit of irony – “diligent production and fair exchange.”

We are made to picture a gap between real/fictitious, productive/financial, value/exchange-value: “the antithesis between commodities and their value-form, money.”[3]  I myself will speak of a gap, and I use “gap” where others on the left speak of “de-coupling” (i.e. Robert Cox), “dissociation” (i.e. Werner Bonefeld), and “inversion” (i.e. Monthly Review editors), terms that one way or another obscure the original, constitutive nature of the gap itself. I should say that here we need to be a little bit theoretical, dare I say dialectical, or in any case we need to be patient with the use of concepts. This is because of a definite antinomy: while the gap is between value and money, there is at the same time no such thing as value without money, since money is the enabling condition of a system of value. In this respect, the gap can be thought of as internal to value, which, as I will argue, is precisely why notions of abolishing the gap through a “return to real value” – and the Keynesian, social-democratic, New Labour, etc. projects associated with such a ‘return’ – are less coherent than we would hope.

The gap reaches a breaking point at a certain conjecture, which we know as crisis. However – and this is my central claim today – the conjecture is called crisis, not the gap itself. The phenomenon of the gap is too vast, containing too many shapes and causing too many effects, to be reduced to something as narrow as crisis alone. The gap is the name for capitalism as a whole, as both the site of crisis and as the precise site of growth.

*

“Crisis,” wrote Suzanne de Brunhoff, “is the brutal manifestation of the law of value.”[4]  Mainstream critics of deregulation would now seem to agree with this characterization of our era, a period of two phases: 1) prices bloat, paper wealth multiplies and “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself,”[5]  2) the ‘brutal law’ asserts its logic when prices can no longer levitate and “defy gravity” as the commentators often say of bubble economics. Crises burst bubbles and devalue capital, so that the political choice becomes one between ‘managed’ devaluation and ‘chaotic’ devaluation, this choice being secondary to the fact that in either case, devaluation is the common imperative: “In crises, the choice is between devaluing money or devaluing commodities.”[6]

Thus, by the summer of 2008, Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank was suggesting that $1.2 trillion of profits would need to be wiped out before the US financial sector could be “cleansed of its excess.”[7]  More recently, the IMF has estimated a $2.7 trillion write-down of US-originated assets, while the global number may be in excess of $4 trillion.[8]  “I would advance the following,” said Kevin Warsh, a Governor of the US Federal Reserve: “We are witnessing a fundamental reassessment of the value of virtually every asset everywhere in the world.”[9]

Warsh’s innocuous notion of a “reassessment of value” and Reid’s technical concept of “mean revision” are euphemisms for nothing less than the massive destruction of capital. I think that for us it’s far more illuminating to use Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” or to quote Henri Lefebvre, who wrote grimly of the fact that “wars and crises have the same result: they liquidate excess (things and men).”[10]  However, the enigma of capitalism – and this enigma is captured in the ‘creative’ half of ‘creative destruction’; the ‘dynamism’ half of ‘crisis and dynamism’ – is that the magnitude of the destruction of value that takes place in the event of a crisis is not equal to any previous gains. In the long trajectory of accumulation, it is as though crises are mere setbacks to be overcome, or as Marx wrote, “a crisis always forms the starting point for new investments.” [11]

Against this long view, liberal notions of equilibrium – notions always tasked with finding ways to either manage immediate crisis or to defend non-crisis operations  – seem to suggest a certain topology of a system in which finance represents an ‘overflowing’ […perhaps this cognitive mapping is helped along by an image of ‘liquidity’?] while crisis (qua illiquidity) represents the corrective – a lid – to the previous excess. The unifying figure of such a topology is the container itself, conceived as a static item of unchanging volume. But this imagery obscures the secret of capitalism itself, whose container is strictly figurative; capital is by definition that which discards its container. Capitalism solves its problems not with new lids but with new containers, so to speak. “Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome,”[12]  so that what were once limits are reconfigured as mere barriers in the endless circuit-work of de-containerizing and re-containerizing.[13]

Why is it the gap (between money and the value it represents) that enables the breaking of the container, in which broken containers are the forensic evidence of crises just they are of expansions? We should simultaneously broaden and specify our definition of the gap. There is not only a simple split of money from value, there is the gap that money itself engenders, a gap within value. This separation is simultaneously money’s ability to separate point of sale from point of purchase, and in a related mode,  present from future. As Keynes wrote in the General Theory (1936): “[T]he importance of money essentially flows from its being a link between the present and the future.”[14]  Marx therefore spoke of money as a ‘means of payment.’[15]  The means of payment is simply what allows the commodity producer to produce prior to sale: it is the inaugural money that exists temporally prior to the production of the actual value in whose name it is advanced. For a moment, the money advanced is therefore fictitious, or “up front,” until it is ‘realized,’ thereby becoming capital. ‘Capital advanced’ therefore “retroactively posits its own presuppositions.[16]  In other words, the ‘means of payment’ is credit: “credit-money springs directly out of the function of money as a means of payment.”[17]  Or, to say the same thing: “currency itself is already credit.”[18]

To summarize the last, rather paradoxical, point: money operates for the commodity producer by splitting the present (purchase) from the future (sale) in the name of a future gain – this is its ‘futurity,’ its essential credit aspect. I think its not incorrect to say that all subsequent gaps are derived from this primal archi-gap, so to speak. Financialisation, in the sense of a periodisation, turns the gap into a visible social sector called ‘financial sector,’ but it expresses the simple separation of exchange-value (money) from value, the separation internal to value itself. The financial sector is an institutional codification of money’s primary tension under a system of private producers.[19]  The fictitious aspect of capital is not merely an ‘excess’ for causing crisis, even if it is that too. Fiction creates value. As the novelist Margaret Atwood asked as a young child faced with the complexities of the banking system: “how could a fiction generate real objects?”[20]

How should we think about the move from fiction to what John Bellamy Foster calls “throughput.” Capital makes greater claims on the economy than the economy, at its existing capacity, can immediately realise for capital.[21]  The result is not failure, but rather competition, whose expression is the accumulation of an excess capital (profit) that, strictly speaking, is immediately unemployable. The structural resolution to this aporia in which existing productive capacity is saturated – in which overaccumulation looms – is total growth through the multiplication of values, in other words, through the multiplication of sites of absorption for investment.[22] The gap is a motor for forward movement (from the perspective of accumulation). Growth is not a choice but a necessity for capital: if growth does not occur, the capital advanced goes unrealized, failing to make its ‘fatal leap’ (salto mortale), in other words, in must be destroyed. If capital stops swimming it dies – like a shark and just as predatory.

*

I hope I have painted a picture in which, to bring a total rapprochement between money and value would be to eliminate both. My question is one posed to those who today aspire to perfect the state of the situation by eliminating “those most excessive aspects.” If we see that the dynamic gap is internal to value, to use the language I have deployed so far (admittedly there are probably better ways to pose the problem), is it enough to call for a ‘return to value,’ or ‘value for money’? Should we really criticize “excessive capitalism,” in which case the signifying predicate plays the role of a redundancy, as though one is speaking of “capitalist capitalism” – is there another kind? Excess (of money-circulation-exchange-finance over value-production-capacity) is the name for capitalism itself, so that we should criticize capitalism and not what has become its ideological decoy in the form of crises, no matter how severe and seemingly anomalous.

I propose a break from domination by the value form, therefore emancipation from the endless accumulation of capital. I am talking about an end of the total subsumption of labour to the commands of ceaseless work and capital. This requires an axiomatic insistence on equality in the face of barbaric inequality, the end of a ‘state of the situation’ in which individuals are part of the ‘count of the count’ (counted merely as potential sources of “effective demand”) under the biopolitical regime of population management. For the task we don’t need optimism, the affect that will never fade in all its beauty. We need to summon something more rare…which is courage: the will to be not an object but a political subject.

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[1] Transcritique: On Kant and Marx transl. Sabu Kohso (London / Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) p. 266. As the promotional material for a banking scheme in the United States recently stated: “the only solution is a return to value: value that comes from production and honest trade.” http://press.freelakotabank.com/index.php

[2] see a survey, Leo Panitch and Martijn Konings, ‘Myths of Neoliberal Deregulation’ New Left Review 57 May/June 2009

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967) p. 138

[4] Suzanne de Brunhoff, Marx on Money transl. M. J. Goldbloom (New York: Urizon Books, 1976) p. 118

[5] The passage in full shows Marx already observing what in the context of the subprime mortgage imbroglio we call “securitization”: “all capital seems to double itself, and sometimes treble itself, by the various modes in which the same capital, or perhaps the same claim on a debt, appears in different forms in different hands.” (Marx, Capital Vol. III quoted in David Harvey, The Limits to Capital ([1982] (London / New York: Verso, 2006) p. 288.) In Vol. I of Capital Marx also reports on something like securitization: “certificates of the debts owing for the purchased commodities circulate for the purpose of transferring those debts to others.” p. 139 op. cit.)

[6] Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 296

[7] John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009) p. 126

[8] see Patrick O’Connor, ‘IMF issues grim forecasts for 2009’ (April 24, 2009) World Socialist Website http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/apr2009/imfr-a24.shtml

[9] Kevin Warsh, ‘The Promise and Perils of the New Financial Architecture’ speech to the Money Marketeers of New York University (November 6, 2008)

[10] Henri Lefebvre, The Survival of Capitalism: Reproduction of the Relations of Production transl. F. Bryant (London: Allison and Busby, 1976) p. 107

[11] Capital Vol II. quoted in Harvey Limits (op. cit.) p. 219, p. 222

[12] Marx, Grundrisse (Middlesex: Penguin, 1973) p. 408

[13] “Capitalism continually reterritorializes with one hand what it was deterritorializing with the other.” Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) p. 259

[14] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Great Britain: Palgrave, 2007) p. 293

[15] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859] Ch. 2 (‘Money or Simple circulation) Section 3 of Ch. 2 (‘Money’) sub-section 3.b of Ch. 2 (‘Means of Payment’)  http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/ch02_3b.htm

[16] Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View (Cambridge, MA / London: MIT Press, 2006) p. 59

[17] Marx, Capital Vol. I (op. cit.) p. 139

[18] Karatani, Transcritique (op. cit.) p. 218

[19] What are the “roots” of today’s financial crisis? On the one hand, the financialisation of the last quarter of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first is seen as a symptomatic development, having “roots in the whole pattern of real accumulation under monopoly-finance capital.” (Foster and Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis (op. it.) p. 19). On the other hand, financialisation is seen as being closer to a cause of symptoms, so that “the international financial system [is] the rootstock from whose disorders stem the various problems which afflict the international political economy, just as blight, disease or mildew attack the different branches of a plant.” (Susan Strange, Casino Capitalism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) p. 4) I side with the first approach, stressing, however, that the root is money and the value form itself. “[M]oney lies at the root both of the social nature of the private labour of commodity-producers and of the fact that this social character can only prevail by the roundabout route of the exchange of commodities, the market, and private appropriation of the value product.” (Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (New Left Books, 1975) p. 408) Basically, the ‘roundabout route of the exchange of commodities’ is more roundabout than liberal and bourgeois economists are willing to admit – exchange travels through finance, pure and simple. It travels through the fated “gap” I’ve been promoting.

[20] Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, CBC Massey Lectures, 2008 (Toronto: Anasi Press, 2008) p. 6

[21] Competition “compels every capitalist to expand production by developing the forces of production without regard to the limits of the market.” Simon Clarke, Marx’s Theory of Crisis (Great Britain: Palgrave, 1994) p. 88

[22] see, for a foundational example of the discussion of saturation, Paul Baran The Political Economy of Growth (New York; Monthly Review Press, 1957)

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