Monday, February 23, 2009

The Ethos of Finance capitalism

As the debate about nationalizing the banks heats up, I thought I would share another book I am reading: Ian Baucom's Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History.  To start with the philosophy of history, Baucom is decidedly in Benjamin's camp, and argues that our current conjuncture is  closely related to the financial capitalism that made possible the slave trade in the eighteenth century.  This is similar to how Benjamin identified the closeness of the 17th century to the 19th century as an intensification of commodity capitalism.  There is much to share, but, I wanted to highlight the paragraph that emphasizes how an economy of credit requires a phenomenology of trust; a situation we are all too familiar with as trust tends to dissipate in the current crisis:

To accept a ... circulated bill of exchange was not only to accept a form of paper money but to express trust in one's own ability to read character and trust in the capacity of one's fellow citizens to do likewise.  If the system were to survive, it depended not only on the soundness of the slave markets for the Caribbean but on the stability of this network of mutually invested trust, and, ideally, on some means of training individuals in how to read one another's character, trustworthiness, and credibility. An accounting innovation, "a modern method of remitting a Guinea cargo," clearly was not, by itself, enough.  For that method to survive and extend itself, it required a complementary social practice and a complementary practice of social reading, a habit of intersubjective analysis that would train readers to read not only the face value and negotiable worth of the bills they were exchanging but the credibility of their partners to these exchanges and the credibility of this system of exchange itself. Commodity culture, Benjamin reveals, is the practical expression of a particular phenomenology of things. The same is true of the speculative culture of finance capitalism. A system of credit encompasses more than just a set of accounting protocols, more than just a table of debts. It demands a phenomenology of transactions, promises, character, credibility (p.64).
We should not trust zombie banks. While others will argue that the phenomenology of trust broke down when the banks started loaning money to the "wrong people," the more significant breach of the current system was the process by which mortgage debt was securitized and made available for speculation. I would argue that the opacity of these financial instruments doomed the intersubjective reading protocols required for finance capital to maintain itself.  If Baucom's philosophy of history is illustrative, then the current crisis may be of such magnitude that we may witness a turn away from the primacy of finance capital and the re-emergence of commodity capitalism. In other words, the long twentieth century, that begins with the financialization of the slave trade in the 18th century may be coming to an end in the first decade of the 21st century. Given the amount of US debt held by China the end of the long twentieth century may also signal the Pacific as the hegemon of global capitalism. 

I should add this book has some marvelous ideas about re-situating parts of public address history within a less nationalist frame. For those of us interested in models for a post national public address (for one attempt, see Greene and Kuswa 2002), this book offers a useful way into the Atlantic as the political-economic-cultural space of consideration and, as I just suggested, the likely importance of the Pacific for the rest of this century. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In praise of the common

A book for all those interested in communist political philosophy: Cesare Casarino & Antonio Negri, In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics.  Two concepts -- conversation and friendship -- play important roles in CC's introduction. I was glad we found time to renew both last night at dinner.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Communicative Communism

With all the talk about socialism in the USA, talk that has nothing to do with socialism but is a misnomer for describing finance capital's war of maneuver to drain more money from the public, I thought I would share a scaled back and re-edited version of something I presented last October to the USC Rhetorical Theory Conference in Columbia, South Carolina. A paper with the title of "Communicative Communism."

Everyday life expresses a commonality, a common humanity that exceeds the control and precarity of complex social systems. However, the ability of everyday life to provide a common ground for a critique was increasingly foreclosed by its organization into what Lefebvre calls the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption." For Lefebvre, communication provided the connective tissue organizing the control of everyday life and, then, through a world market in information communication globalized everyday life.

To think then with Lefebvre, the idea of a global everyday life would refigure the common humanity expressed at the intersection of work, family, and leisure, as the daily life made planetary by the merger of capitalism and communication. The global financial panic of 2008 reveals more clearly what Randy Martin (2002) described as the “financialization of daily life.” Martin describes how over the last thirty years financialization become a key technique for managing the risks and contingencies of daily life. The global trade and speculative bubble in mortgage based securities is illustrative of how the merger of communication and capitalism envelopes daily life into the world market.

My tendency is to agree with Hardt and Negri (2000) that the world market is the diagram of power that orients the production and governance of postmodern subjectivity. As such communication is increasingly the infrastructure by which capitalism attempts to produce and consume daily life. Jodi Dean (2004) describes the merger of capitalism and communication as “communicative capitalism” and argues it risks foreclosing the possibility of democratic politics. It does so because communicative capitalism, as Agamben (2000) argues, promotes communication without communicability. Massumi (2002) agrees with Agamben to observe how communication and capitalism merge together into a new model of power based on usurpation. Massumi writes: “What is being usurped here?” The very expression of potential. The movement of relationality. Becoming-together. Belonging. Capitalism is the global usurpation of belonging [as such] “belonging per se has emerged as a problem of global proportions. Perhaps the planetary problem” (88).

Communication should not be left to the world market and capitalism's modulation and usurpation of belonging. We must begin the work of illustrating how, as Stuart Murray notes, new forms of life, new ways of belonging, are possible through the “art and labour of speech” (2005, 2). As Levebvre notes, “the project no longer consists in unfolding daily life to disclose what is concealed in it … or in an effort to transcend it … but in a metamorphosis through action and works –hence through thought, poetry, love” ( 166-167).

One name for this metamorphosis of daily life is communism. For once we have knowledge of daily life at the intersection of capitalism and communication, “we must leave it without hesitating” (Levebvre, 166). The potential of communicative communism might then be appreciated as an exodus of communication from the capitalist control of the common belonging of daily life and the rhetorical expressions of new forms of life to better communicate a life in common.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Quote of the Day

Letting us in on the swanky new digs for the So. Cal Film School, the NYT had this nugget from one of the film school's sugar daddy's George Lucas: "The only way you are going to get respect on a college campus, or a university campus, is to build something that is important," Mr. Lucas said of his reasons for backing the complex.  "Schools and universities mainly understand money."

Just wanted to share.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Cynicism that is Money/Speech: One more on Daschle

If we accept that lobbying exists as a rhetorical practice, one inextricably linked to the peculiar world of money/speech, we might also begin to explore how money/speech functions to constitute a cynical relationship to government.  Lets take one more look at Daschle and how the policy of lobbying makes its distinctions. While Daschle was removing his name from nomination, Time ran a report on his unofficial lobbying.  This is how Michael Scherer put it in his essay for Time:

Although he never registered, Daschle, in fact, made millions of dollar after he left government doing stuff that looks, smells and tastes a lot like lobbying  ... it is this ethical gray area Daschle's advisory work represents that call in question Obama's promise of changing the culture in Washington.

According to the article, Daschle did not so much make official lobbying contact with any one, but he did advise groups on how to make those contacts, and did participate in what are termed "lobbying activities." By law one does is not a lobbyist unless one registers as one and makes lobbying contacts not simply lobbying activities. 

To be sure, I need to do more work on those distinctions, but fine tuning rhetorical policy to distinguish a lobbying contact from a lobbying activity gives legal cover but does not improve public perceptions about government.  A general cynicism is cultivated by lobbying and the machinations of policing it.  What money/speech produces is cynicism and it may be time to turn our attention to these affective dimensions than the transparency movements' concern about undue influence.  As Tom Waits would sing: Everybody knows.

In a recent review of Robert Kaiser's So Much Damn Money, a book about lobbying, The New Yorker says: "Kaiser's account dwells less on blatant corruption than on what is perfectly, depressingly legal.  Lobbyists, for all their policy-shaping aspirations, come across as simple bagmen, conveying cash between buyers in the private sector and all-too-willing sellers in Congress"  (January 26, 2009: 73).

So, in the end, the legal distinction between lobbying contacts and lobbying activities may be moot, so long as the money talks. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Taxing Ethics

Today's New York Times highlights the difficulty of squaring ethical principles with the political culture of money/speech.  Everywhere President Obama turns for expertise (Treasury, Defense, Health) his appointments run counter to his rhetorical policy about lobbyists and the ethical contours of public service.  President Obama has lost one major player, Tom Daschle, and a smaller one, Nancy Killefer because of their failure to pay taxes.  Part of President Obama's difficulty will be the perception of opportunism as his ethical policy norms interact with  the specific case.   Regarding taxes, the rule of thumb seems to be:  a Treasury Secretary can avoid taxes but not a Health and Human Services Secretary nor a White House performance officer.