REVIEW: The Violence of Financial Capitalism, by Christian Marazzi

"If your debt is an asset, become a toxic asset class." Marina Vishmidt

 

Alaska is hardly the easiest place to read a dense, 110 page treatise on financial capitalism. In McCarthy, a town with maybe 100 people, one dirt road, and no police, the world of financial capitalism, economic crises, and marxist economics seems further than the closest paved road (60 miles). It is only the intermittent contact with tourists that grounds me, briefly, into a world where currencies fluctuate, debt circulates, and the governments of the world try over and over again to address the newest manifestation of the crisis. Although as a seasonal service worker living on tips I feel the impacts of a weak Euro directly in my pocket, for the most part my attention is occupied by the mountains in my back yard and the black bears trying to get into my garbage. So apologies, in advance, if I am not as up to date on the current state of various world economies as a typical reviewer of a book called The Violence of Financial Capitalism ought be.

 

Fortunately, the more interesting parts of Marazzi's book revolve less around economic analyses of the current, ongoing financial crisis and more around the role of bare life in a financialized economy, the extraction of value from bodies, and a new understanding of the production and then enclosure of new commons as an ongoing mode of capitalist accumulation. The density of ideas and analysis in The Violence of Financial Capitalism makes a concise review difficult, and thus what I would like to do here is present a brief overview of his arguments, and then zero in on those elements most interesting to me. I find much of Marazzi's analysis and critique compelling. However, the boldness of his critique is not matched by a similar boldness in his propositions, and what I found most interesting was that which was only marginally discussed or referenced. The book begins with a quote from Gilles Delueze: "It is not a matter of worrying or hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons." Unfortunately, Marazzi achieves the remarkable effect of applying a refreshingly new analysis to the economic crisis and the current structure of capitalism, and then proposing that we attack it with tired, old weapons. After discussing his interpretations of the crisis, then, I would like to briefly explore the possibility of using new weapons to attack those strategic weaknesses revealed in his book. We'll see what happens.

 

Marazzi begins by situating the financial crisis globally and historically. It cannot be treated as a momentary hiccup, an isolated incident that can be solved through appropriate economic policy and international coordination, then, but is part of a larger restructuring of capital, and can only be addressed politically. Further, we must recognize that even those countries which are often praised for their resilience and responsibility–Japan, Germany, China–are inextricably linked to and dependent on the very mechanisms which led to the crisis. The very credit that they provide allows indebted Western countries to purchase the products that they export–a new, inverted take on traditional imperialism. In order to possibly confront this crisis and propose possible exits,  we must understand the changing structure of capital and labor and the role that finance now plays.

 

This financial crisis, then, is fundamentally different from all prior financial crises. While historically financialization took place in response to falling rates of profit due to capitalist competition, Marazzi argues, now "we are in a historical period in which finance is cosubstantial with the very production of goods and services" (28). That is,  it is useless to distinguish between material production of goods and services and the creation of profit through the circulation of financial instruments. Any attempt to return to a "real" economy of producing and distributing "things" made in a factory is ill-conceived, as the very demand that allows companies to make any profit at all from material production comes from spending power obtained through debt. This in itself is not a particularly new position: we already knew, for example that for many years even the profits of companies traditionally associated with material production–General Motors, Wal-Mart, etc.–have increasingly come from sub-sectors of those companies offering financial services (Fred Magdoff. "The Explosion of Debt and Speculation." Monthly Review 2006, volume 58, issue 6). These profits are generated in a variety of ways–transaction fees, packaging and selling assets, interest on loans. The fundamental point to understand here is the degree to which contemporary capitalism depends on the creation of debt.

 

From here on out, things start to get interesting, and Marazzi diverts from the usual course of these critiques into newer and fresher terrain. First, addressing the sub-prime mortgage crisis, he argues that "in order to raise and make profits, finance also needs to involve the poor, in addition to the middle class. In order to function, this capitalism must invest in the bare life of people who cannot provide any guarantee, who offer nothing apart from themselves. It is a capitalism that turns bare life into a direct source of profit" (39, emphasis mine). Now we start to enter the realm of bio-capitalism, which "produces value by extracting it not only from the body functioning as the material instrument of work, but also from the body understood as a whole" (49). There are a couple of different arguments at play here, and I'd like to illuminate both of them.

 

First, Marazzi returns through the remainder of the book to a notion that capitalism is dependent on continually finding new commons, and then enclosing them to find profit in a new round of what was once called primitive accumulation. In the case of mortgages, these commons are access to the social need of housing: housing is made available to all, despite material resources, wealth, or income, for two years at a low, fixed-rate mortgage. After 2 years, interest payments switch to a variable-rate, usually skyrocketing after each inability to pay on time. "In such a way, the financial logic produces a common (goods) that it then divides and privatizes through the expulsion of the “inhabitants of the common” by means of the artificial creation of scarcity of all kinds—scarcity of financial means, liquidity, rights, desire, and power" (41).

 

The logic is the same as enclosure and primitive accumulation has always been. However, the difference "is that today 'pre-capitalist' common goods are made, so to speak, by human primary materials, the vital capacity of producing wealth autonomously" (118). Marazzi defines the  common as "the entire knowledge, understandings, information, images, affects and social relations that are strategically subject to the production of goods" (119). This is no natural resource in a peripheral country that can be enclosed and exported by an imperialist power, but is instead every idea we have, every relationship that we form with one another.

 

Marazzi's second key argument in this area regards the informalization of work and its extension into all parts of our lives. Here, he references coproduction, or the outsourcing of production costs into the sphere of circulation and consumption. In coproduction, by providing their feedback, their suggestions, and their preferences, consumers participate at no cost to producers in the creation of new products and services. Marazzi cites crowdsourcing, the interactive and constantly demanding aspects of Web 2.0, Google's use of beta testing, and even Ikea's assemble-it-yourself furniture as ways in which companies increasingly shift the costs of their production onto consumers, while imposing a sense of scarcity that allows them to maintain profits through copyright laws. "New constant capital…is constituted…by a totality of immaterial organizational systems that suck surplus-value by pursuing citizen-laborers in every moment of their lives, with the result that the working day, the time of living labor, is excessively lengthened and intensified" (55).

 

So this cognitive labor, these commons we produce through social media, through facebook and viral videos and all other signals we send out signifying our desires, our abilities, our ideas, all become new resources for capital to mine, and our rate of work increases unconsciously to occupy all aspects of our lives. For Marazzi, under empire (specifically, Hardt & Negri’s empire), every citizen-consumer now fills the place of peripheral countries under imperialism: subjected to a debt-trap, maintaining consumption through debt, and constantly providing a new field of commons to be expropriated by capital in the form of affects, emotions, and crowd-sourcing.

 

For me, these are the pithy, interesting parts of the book, and make it worth the read. The extension of work into all parts of our lives, the mining of our emotions, our relations, and our affects for profit, and this new understanding of a constantly created commons opens interesting spaces for conversation and conflict. The damning parts of the book, unfortunately, are in Marazzi's conclusions, and in what he leaves out.

 

One might expect, in a book talking about the extension "of value extraction to the sphere of reproduction and distribution" (48), that the long and rich history of feminist critique of reproductive and affective labor might be discussed. Instead, this is mentioned in a single, offhand comment: this is a "a phenomenon, let it be noted, well-known to women for a long time" (48). Perhaps, if we acknowledged that in certain ways capital has always depended on extracting value from reproductive labor, that acts of care and other non-monetized interactions have always been complicit in and depended on by capital, we might be able to take some lessons from those who came before us.

 

 Unfortunately, Marazzi does not take those lessons. He analyzes the new form of financial capitalism, demonstrates the ways in which it colonizes every waking minute, and then concludes that some basic social democratic reforms are needed. He praises the Obama administration's intervention in bankruptcy courts, a new policy that "authorizes bankruptcy judges to modify the loans taken by owners of insolvent houses" (93). This is important, according to Marazzi, not only because it could save up to 4 million families from foreclosure, but because it also establishes "a concrete value of the derivative securitized assets….[allowing] the saving of many more banks than the emergency measures undertaken so far" (94). So this plan is desirable because it helps to stabilize financial capitalism in addition to saving homes, and is further in accordance with what we ought desire because it raises " the question of the right to social ownership of a common good" (94).

 

Another of Marazzi's proposals is unwittingly reminiscent of the Wages for Housework campaign, arguing that "[o]vercoming longterm unemployment must assume the evermore anthropogenic

nature of the new system of accumulation; it must therefore privilege forms of labor remuneration directly tied to the reproduction of life itself" (116). That is, since our labor now primarily takes place outside of the factory or the workplace and is instead performed in every action we take on our iphone, we should at the least be paid for our work. Unlike the Wages for Housework framework, however, this is not a strategic action taken to demonstrate the hidden work performed in households and relationships, to highlight contradictions and lay the groundwork for future conflict. As Silvia Federici says, "in fact, to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it. It means precisely the opposite" (Silvia Federici. "Wages Against Housework." Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975).  For Marazzi, demanding wages for our informalized labor appears to be the end goal.

 

Marazzi concludes that, given this analysis, "The objectives of this struggle are clear: imposing, collectively and from the ground up, new rules to govern the market and the financial system, a social mobilization for starting anew investment policies in public services, education and welfare, the creation of public employment for the conversion of energy, a refusal to defiscalize high incomes, assert the right to wages, employment and social income and the construction of autonomous, self-determined spaces" (122). After some interesting detours and penetrating critiques, he ends by proposing a series of social democratic reforms that would be equally at home coming from the mouths of left-leaning politicians or the Green Party.

 

Perhaps Christian Marazzi has resigned himself to a particular world, or perhaps my excitement at his critique of diffuse affective and intellectual labor blinded me to his Negriist leanings, but I was disappointed at the meekness of his propositions. As I (naively, pessimistically, hopelessly) desire not a more equitable wage structure but the abolition of work, capitalist social relations, and both exchange- and use-value, I was hoping for some slightly more penetrating proposals. If we are to accept his analysis of the pervasiveness of labor and value-extraction, if like others before him he argues that all of life is now part of capitalist production, what avenues for escape or disruption might there be? What does workplace sabotage look like in a production process dependent on crowdsourcing? If all of our affects and relationships and emotions are trapped and used to generate surplus value, what can we learn from proposals of caring or human strikes? If indeed we are constantly creating new commons that are then enclosed, how can we make those commons opaque, hidden, slippery? Despite my suspicion that not much is possible, I still have my sights set higher than Marazzi. Use his critique, but find new weapons.

 

 

A short list of suggested reading for those interested in sabotaging our own position as citizen-producers in empire:

 

Silvia Federici. "Wages Against Housework." Power of Women Collective and Falling Wall Press, 1975. http://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/silvia-federici-wages-against-housework/

 

Crucial for developing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of gendered resistance to affective and reproductive labor, and for filling in the miserable omissions of Marazzi in the realm of feminist theory.

 

Marina Vishmidt. "Human Capital or Toxic Asset: After the Wage." REARTIKULACIJA, #10. http://www.reartikulacija.org/?p=1487

 

Starts from a similar position as Marazzi, by analyzing the role and importance of consumer debt and the disappearance of traditional waged work. Vishmidt, unlike Marazzi, takes these ideas further and in a more interesting direction, while simultaneously paying necessary homage to Italian Autonomist Marxist and feminist theories and practices that underlie discussions around the "social factory," housework, and the refusal of work–an homage that Marazzi entirely omits.

 

Marina Vishmidt and Neil Gray. "The Economy of Abolition/Abolition of the Economy". Variant, issue 42. http://www.variant.org.uk/42texts/EconomyofAbolition.html

 

A discussion between Marina Vishmidt and Neil Gray regarding the shift from work to debt, in the context of contemporary communisation theory, and a brief nod to gender abolition as a possible model. Well worth reading.

 

Giorgio Agamben. “The Glorious Body,” in Nudities. Stanford University Press, 2011.

 

For all that Marazzi discusses the importance of bare life in financial capitalism, he doesn’t once mention the primary theorist of bare life. While much of Agamben’s work is important to these ideas of constant availability for the sake of production, “The Glorious Body” takes a slightly more poetic and optimistic approach than other of his works. If capital depends on bodies which are always at its disposal, Agamben asks here what bodies could look like if we became inoperative, unavailable and liberated from use value altogether.