Lecture Notes: Lazzarato, and tying up some loose ends

Everybody is so freaked out on the blogs! I told you we’d all feel bad about student loans. But of course you are—Lazzarato describes how we’re all fucked. We’ll get to resistance next week (in miliatary parlance, let’s figure out how to get unfucked). But really, I want to start preparing a cadence for the end of the semester. Hence: lecture notes.

Here’s the big context: One of the main ambiguities of the class, of course, is the term network itself; for the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about various kinds of financial networks, and our ways of being in it (debtors all of us). This is not to say that this isn’t also a computational network; it’s just not only computational.

Tying up some loose ends:
• Financialization. This is a general term for the making-tradeable of just about anything at all (turning things into financial “instruments”): the securitization of mortgages into mortgage-backed securities; turning cheese I haven’t made yet into a tradable futures contract; taking out a bet about any old thing happening in the world (that’s a swap—insurance on property you don’t own is also called a bet).

Speculation. One word we haven’t yet used, but is important here is speculation, which is the technical term for the process of extracting value from the future. Risk management (e.g. the Black-Scholes algorithm, but not only that) is important because it allows the calculation, quantification, management, and mitigation of the risk speculation creates.

Betting, gambling, and the really awful stuff. Some of this really is just betting: if you find a number that changes over time—of any kind whatsoever—you can find somebody betting on it. The difference between like actual gambling-betting and betting in financial markets is that there are, somewhere buried under many layers of financialization, actual real people and things that matter. Which somehow actually makes it worse. (Futures have a really important function in the lives of farmers; swaps matter to people or firms who are exposed to indirect risk; the financiers have no interest in anything other than the movements of various numbers, and the underlying assets matter only to the extent that they can help you figure out which way the numbers move.)

Capital is inhuman. Financial capital gets you coming and going: for folks like you and me, we hope the prices always go up, and in a reasonably steady rate. But the smart investment banks made money during the crisis in 2008—mostly, they make money not on rising prices, but on volatility.

On affect and capitalism. Let me try to make a point concretely that I tried to make a few classes back: to the extent that financial capital extracts value from the future, it also extracts value from our own individual futures. If you have a debt to pay back, you behave differently. So let’s say you’re super interested in some kind of artistic practice—but you can’t go make art because of student loans. So you take your finely-honed creativity, ditch the “purposelessness” of the aesthetic (à la Kant), and decide you’re going to start being a graphic designer. You’ve now redirected your creativity—your affective labor—away from art and towards making capitalism run more smoothly for other people, because you had to make money to pay back loans. Which is to say, to the extent that (à la Massumi) affect (in the weird, impersonal sense in which it is not feeling or emotion) is a name for creativity and futurity—indetermination, which is also to say, the possibility of novelty—financialization and indebtedness function as machines for redirecting novelty away from art (or anything else that isn’t subject to capitalistic value-extraction, say revolutionary politics or caring work) and towards the production of the novelty capitalism demands.

On Lazzarato
• And that, of course, is Lazzarato’s point: “The power of debt is described as if it were exercised neither through repression nor through ideology. The debtor is ‘free,’ but his actions, his behavior, are confined to the limits defined by the debt he has entered into. The same is true as much for the individual as for a population or social group. You are free insofar as you assume the way of life (consumption, work, public spending, taxes, etc.) compatible with reimbursement.” Or, I should say, paying rent. (Thanks to Emily, I can now point out that interest is really rent payed on money: you pay rent on what you borrow, and have to keep paying rent on it as long as you have it borrowed.)

• He continues (next sentence): “The techniques used to condition individuals to live with debt begin very early on, even before entry into the job market” (31). What are these techniques? (Anxiety! Fear! “Reasonability.” And so on: this is not ideology, nor repression.)

• “Viewing debt as the archetype of social relations means two things. On the one hand, it means conceiving economy and society on the basis of an asymmetry of power and not on that of a commercial exchange that implies and presupposes equality. … On the other hand, from this perspective debt means immediately making the economy subjective, since debt is an economic relation which, in order to exist, implies the molding and control of subjectivity [read: affect] such that ‘labor’ becomes indistinguishable from the ‘work on the self’ ” (33).

• Which is to say, the work of the book is an investigation into “how the debt economy forms subjectivity” (95).

• Let’s draw some connections:

—Accelerando tracks a fantasy about the transformations—economic, affective, biological and technological that life must undergo to become fully compatible with the kind of debt economy we currently have.

Blackhat shows how “action” is always misplaced, always somewhere else. Even when we get to see the inside of computers, visualizing a technical operation that is beyond our powers of perception (and resembling a car chase—thanks, Noah)—the real story is always somewhere else, and can’t be spectacularized either by film or by news media. The big, spectacular nuclear meltdown was just a red-herring distracting test-run for the real dastardly plan, raising the price of tin production in Malaysia by sabotaging dams. There aren’t even people who will get hurt! In this, Blackhat is similar to another quasirealist genre action movie, Quantum of Solace, where the villain is a faceless organization of capitalists who engineer a military coup, have the new el presidente sign over rights to a huge tract of land where they’ve secretly been stashing water, and then force the new president to buy the water at extortionate prices. Which is to say, they’re just run of the mill capitalists masquerading under a nonsensical name, “Quantum.” This is less about digital technology than it is about the operation of capital, but anxieties about the future tend to be displaced onto new technologies. Where Blackhat fails is precisely in its failure to spectacularize its events: or rather, it turns out the solution is just a white guy killing a bunch of people (thanks, Sara).

—A question not for discussion, really, but for further pondering (I don’t know the answer): does digital computation really change the operation of capital qualitatively? (As Ed points out, and Dan contemplates, and as I know Theo believes, it may just be the same old story, just faster.)

•Back to Lazzarato: “Even though neoliberalism equally involves the economy and subjectivity, ‘work’ and ‘work on the self,’ it reduces the latter to an injunction to become one’s own boss [cf. Foucault’s panopticism, where one becomes one’s own jailer], in the sense of ‘taking upon oneself’ the costs and risks that business and the State externalize onto society. The promise of what ‘work on the self’ was supposed to bring to ‘labor’ in terms of emancipation (pleasure, self-fulfillment, recognition, experimentation with different forms of life, mobility, etc.) has been rendered void, transformed into the imperative to take on the risks and costs that neither business nor the State are willing to undertake” (93).

• This is perhaps the most important passage of the book: neoliberalism is, among other things, characterized by a massive shift of risk away from its socialized forms (pensions, unemployment insurance, free or cheap higher education, socialized health care [like we ever had that here!]) and onto the individual. The neoliberalized individual is now responsible for saving for retirement (and so now the investment banks make money managing private money, and also gamble with those deposits), paying for their lives during times of unemployment (not least wise, running up credit card debt) paying for higher education (in the form of loans, on which the individual must pay rent in the form of interest, and which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy), and so on. Being a freelancer is great! Except the risk is nearly unmanageable for actually living individuals who don’t already have capital. This massive transfer of risk is perhaps the technique of neoliberal governmentality. If once the individual’s risk was once mitigated by aggregation at a population level (e.g., in the form of pension funds), now the population is a population of individual risk-bearers whose subjectivity is formed by that risk in the form of indebtedness. Meanwhile, the population can be subjected to more ruthlessly efficient forms of value-extraction: there isn’t interest on tax-funded state appropriations for higher ed, but there sure is interest on the student loans that have replaced it.

I think I’d better stop there (since this is already probably too much material to get through in class today). And then next week, we’ll start talking about the political forms of interruption. If the system is overwhelmingly massive, integrated, there’s no outside imaginable (in Mark Fisher’s words, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism), then we don’t have strategy, we only have tactics. Hence our study of tactical media next week.