Money and Capital as Media and Power

Let’s begin with some of what we know about money from Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mindand David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years: it doesn’t emerge out of barter, through a gradual selection of one particularly apt commodity to serve as a universally exchangeable object. Money is introduced by the state, or the ruler: according to Seaford, as a way of replacing a more archaic and egalitarian form of sacrifice, where all members of the community were present on the scene, to one in which sacrifice is organized by a warrior “Big Man” (although Seaford doesn’t use the term) who distributes the offering according to merit (as judged, of course, by the Big Man or chief); according to Graeber, in order to pay soldiers in wars of conquest where the soldiers are away from home and need to supply themselves where they are stationed—according to Graeber, this is also the origin of markets, which emerge in order to supply the soldiery. I would give Seaford’s account primacy, because he is further accounting for how the Greeks became the first fully monetized society, and he also shows how the Greeks systematically connected money to the instability of power relations. Of course, money could have been introduced both ways, and other ways, in differing times and places. What we could say at this point, though, is that money displaces the sacrificial scene, but without abolishing the center-margin configuration constitutive of that or any scene. Insofar as money is established and controlled by the ruler, and so is the market wherein money circulates, we could say that a sum of money represents access to a piece of the center, whatever that entails in a particular place and time. At the same time, we can see that money is certainly a significant factor in undermining sacral kingship, because it creates centers of power and competencies that a sacral king cannot control. Along with the circulation of money comes the circulation of power.

But Seaford and Graeber also show that money generates new ways of seeing and thinking, which is to say, it is a medium, every bit as much as writing or electronic communication—as has often been noted, money is a sign system. Seaford shows how the metaphysical binaries like ideal and material, mind and nature, universal and particular, individual and society, and others, are products of the form of money (he is of course dependent on the history of reflections on these matters within Marxist theory). Graeber, meanwhile, shows how debt, which comes into being along with money and markets, and is in fact central to their creation, generates entire theologies regarding the relation between humans and the gods, or God. This is a good time to point out that, as linguistic beings, we are always within some medium, so it’s not as if the media distort some natural, non-mediated perspective—in fact, one could say that the very notion of a natural, non-mediated perspective is a product of money, which creates the possibility of thinking about an individual directly confronted with “nature.” Within, or perhaps “tilted” towards one medium we can see and say something about our relation to others. Power, of course, would be another medium, with the central power a sign of the center. Money, we could say, clouds our view of the medium of power, because it represents power as something to be bought and sold and as a way of utilizing others and oneself for some immediate advantage. Power, meanwhile, interferes with the way money would “like” to “present itself”: rather than a representation of the intrinsic properties of its possessor, through the medium of power we can see money as commanding a certain “portion” of the center (and hence as reducing the center to “portions”).

Capital, at the very least is something that makes it possible to produce other things. But while it may be possible to project the concept back to early ages (the native’s spear is capital, etc.) the concept really has its meaning in a social order in which the “economy” has been removed from ritual and political control and is therefore governed by the power of money. Capital is most fundamentally mobile and therefore expressed through money—the most advanced technology is useless without the power of money to command labor, knowledge, resources, supply chains and end consumers. Within capital as a medium, all human activity is homogeneous and exchangeable, while any particular activity presents itself as subject to never-ending growth. I would say that if money represents power over a piece of the center, capital represents power over the disciplines. Once capital acquired the capacity to outlast labor in any class battle, it also acquired a power independent of either state established discipline or traditional social orders—indeed, the prerogatives of all such became impediments to this new power. And once capital acquired the power to remove itself from one community and move to another, and then from one country to another, it acquired powers that didn’t quite eliminate those of states but certainly penetrated deeply into state power. As theorists like Baudrillard (and many others) pointed out, everything must prove itself before capital, everything must show its usefulness and exchangeability. The sense of one’s own body as a set of parts that might be replaced, repaired, sold, or junked, which is implicit both in much “end of life” discussions and AI fantasies, come very easily within the medium of capital.

Capital is so all-embracing and all penetrating that it’s hard to imagine what it would mean to think outside of, or beyond it. For Marx, this is what the proletariat was for. The Italian Marxism pioneered by Antonio Negri, which has branched out and continues strongly in Europe, at least, also informed the anti-globalization and “Occupy” movements (look through a book list of Autonomedia or Semiotext[e]), transfers this revolutionary power to “social labor” exercised by an increasingly highly trained and intellectual working class. This collectivized, global social labor overcomes all attempts to confine itself with capital’s boundaries or those of the state—some future anarchistic order is more or less explicitly prophesied here, with “self-management” as the highest value. More important to me here than the political prospects here is the mediumistic claim, i.e., the claim to be able to see through capital and not fall prey to its machinations. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” here trains its vision on the way everything presented as a “value” by the capitalist order is in fact astratagem for disciplining, confining, controlling social labor. As Deleuze pointed out in his “Society of Control,” all this has also been autonomized, an argument that the algorithms of Google, Facebook and Twitter make very visible. There has been much news lately about how these companies have been manipulating these algorithms to suppress right wing perspectives; while obviously true, from the “autonomista” approach, this is beside the point and not really necessary. Once these companies overcome this momentary panic, the argument will go, they will see that letting the algorithms work on their own will provide all the social control necessary for capital.

The problem for the autonomistas is that without the arbitrary assumption of some inherently free laboring subject, it would be hard for them to say what, exactly, is wrong with the algorithmic order. Not that it’s so much easier for anyone else, once all naturalistic conceptions of freedom are set aside. A good ruler would want as much information as possible about his people; he would want such information gathered, compiled and analyzed by competent and trustworthy sources; and he would want such information to be put to use to anticipate future possibilities and pre-empt potential problems. Why wouldn’t he want this, and why wouldn’t his subjects want this, other, again, than in the name of some fetishized notion of freedom? The algorithm is the best way of doing this right now. But rather than some temporary, subjectivizing distortion of the algorithmic medium, the jiggering of algorithms by the big tech companies demonstrates that the setting of the algorithms is never automatic or neutral. That good ruler would have to determine, or have determined, what counts as “information.” Within the algorithmic medium each individual is thinking about how one action or even thought serves as an indicator of the relative probabilities of other actions and thoughts. The main source of income for the social media corporations is advertising, and what advertisers want is knowledge of how likely someone interested in one thing is to buy another thing—a detailed profile of consumer habits is immensely valuable. So, that’s going to be one vector of algorithmism. The question for the algorithms constructed by the social media companies, though, is a bit different—they want to keep you within their system, and the way to do that is to make the system consistent on the terms on which you enter it. Even when we’re obsessed with buying things, we don’t really see ourselves as “consumers”—rather, we see ourselves as interested in certain things—sports, and specific kinds of sports, specific discussions about sports; books and intellectual “ideas” and “topics,” and specific discussions within these spheres; family, friends, members of our social group; and so on. The social media company wants to help us find our way from something we are interested in to something we might be interested in, and out of that network can be carved various consumer profiles useful to other companies.

So, the algorithmic is the way this “stage” of capital leverages the disciplines for its own purposes. But, to use another Marxist term (it’s not my fault if no one has given capital as a whole way of life, a medium, as much thought as the Marxists), capital must grant the disciplines some “relative autonomy” in doing so. It must allow us to pursue our interests if only in order to capitalize on those interests; within the more paranoiac streams of “oppositional” thought we could imagine that capital has “always already” channeled those interests in ways guaranteed to flow back to capital in full, but how could capital know how to do that without granting its knowers some leeway in the first place. Someone must plug the variables in the algorithm. Now, liberalism can only accelerate capital’s “logic” by trying to access some level of freedom yet unpenetrated by capital. If the medium of capital can be interfered with, it will be through the power medium, first of all by pointing to capital as a power, or a network of powers, rather than an amorphous monster. Power is more of a retardant than an accelerant. Working to see every decision you make as commanded might seem terribly constraining and oppressive, but you’re the one working to see it that way, and it is at least more truthful than seeing everything you do as a result of your unconstrained will. Capital really does attempt the ultimate decentering, but it cannot accomplish it—if it were to “succeed,” it would produce catastrophe, requiring the re-establishment of order (if still possible) from the remains.

If I say something, I mean what I say, but what I say has a meaning beyond what I myself mean. The modern subject, or subject of capital wants to control the meaning of what he says by making it correspond to what he means. We still see this all the time—as soon as something one says gets out of that person’s control there is a furious reaction, whether it be denouncing those who “distorted” what he “really” said (taking it “out of context”) or apologizing, reframing, “walking back,” etc., so that what I mean can be revised to conform to what I turned out to have meant. It’s incredibly hard to let go of one’s meaning, because that is all that protects one from complete subsumption in the machinery of capital. But the very idea of a meaning fully intended by the speaker or writer is itself a product of money and capital—it is within their media (one is thinking in terms of copyright). Self-control, or discipline, is central, but desperate attempts to claim one’s own meaning subvert it. The distinction between what David Olson calls “speaker’s meaning,” on the one hand, and “sentence’s meaning,” on the other (drawing upon Frege’s distinction between “meaning” and “sense”), can be played out otherwise. My “own” meaning is in fact the probabilistic range of all the meanings my sentences, my discourse, might have in one “context” or medium after another, with some of the contexts and media registering meanings constructed in previous contexts and media, and so on; and, it iterates previous sentences and discourses (said by others as well as myself), with theirentire “range.” What “I” want is not so much others to hear from me as for all of us to hear from the center. We could imagine an “average” of all the possible meanings of what one has said, but we can also imagine a centering of them: if we’re all focused on the “same” meaning, then that meaning has been detached from any of us and we’re trying to figure out what the center is saying through us; we are obeying the imperative to derive further meaning from the center. We keep showing differences between speaker meaning and sentence meaning, between the speaker meaning and the sentence meaning of the one who shows the difference, and so on. The center speaks through these differences: the more what any “I” says generates a range of meaning different than that “I”’s, the more what that “I” says is the discourse of the center. The disciplinary space that can singularize any speaker’s meaning while treating it as product of all the ways it has been taken up is the discipline training itself to listen to the center. The discipline of the discourse of the center sustains a medium irreducible to capital, and it is within this medium that the power medium can be seen as distinguished from capital as well.

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