From subalternity to autonomy

On Capitalism’s Emotional Logics

by Fiona Allon on July 20, 2015

At first blush, the title of Martijn Konings new book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism, may seem a little perplexing. After all, we’re quite familiar with understanding capitalism in terms of the “callous cash nexus”, or as a regime of cold, depersonalised calculation that reduces the thick relations between people to the commodified relations between things. But we’re less likely to encounter interpretations that engage critically or indeed satisfactorily with capitalism’s emotional logics, capitalism’s affective economy.

pid_25513 (1)And on this point let’s not forget Fredric Jameson’s 1984 essay in New Left Review in which he famously declared the cultural logic of late capitalism to be characterised by a “waning of affect”, and the proliferation of “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness”. The substance and integrity of social life were being displaced, he suggested, by the discombobulating surface articulations of a new flexible, globalised post-Fordist mode of accumulation.

Yeah, sure, I know it has long been fashionable to take cheap shots at Fredric Jameson’s more polemical flourishes. But I think it is fair to say that, at the time, his analysis became somewhat representative of an orthodox-Marxist tradition in which capitalist expansion was viewed simply as flattening the texture of the social fabric, and equated with instrumental rationality and reification. In the words of another representative of this tradition, David Harvey, the focus was primarily on the “reductionism of all beings and all cultural differences to a common commodified form”. Karl Polanyi’s model of market disembedding is perhaps the Ur-text of this perspective, albeit from a slightly different approach, which again stresses the externality or autonomy of economy from society, a corrosive, instrumental force in conflict with social life and the distinctive qualities of human association. This then inevitably triggers a double-movement of “re-embedding”, on terms that often can only be normative, nostalgic and conservative.

Within this general framework, the contemporary social sciences have repeatedly offered us what Martijn calls a “ready-made narrative template” for understanding the role of markets and money in modern life. And we know the dimensions of this template only too well: the narrative of capitalism’s “dehumanising and homogenising effects” remains, intransigently, a “comforting plotline”, or what Bill Maurer has called a “good story” that we can always reach for as the most readily available form of critique.

BerlantBut the most readily available and enduring forms of critique are not always the best ones for thinking about the specificities of capitalism, and in particular for those changes associated with a thoroughly financialised neoliberal capitalism. As Lauren Berlant has put it: “We understand nothing about impasses of the political without having an account of the production of the present”. And this is precisely why Martijn’s book is so important: it thinks hard about the transformations of contemporary capitalism, arguing for the need to take seriously the centrality of emotions and affect to the lived contradictions of the financialised present. In this way, it contributes to ongoing debates about affect and emotion that seek to understand how forms of power work through emotional and affective life, as part of broader social and political processes, yet without reducing the complex, unpredictable nature of affective responses simply to the unidirectional effect of control or authority.

Contra to Jameson, Harvey, Polanyi and others, then, the book argues that the development and transformation of capitalism entails the development and transformation of affect (rather than its attenuation or waning), such that its efficacy is subtly intensified and heightened and possibly even extended. Belief, sentiment and faith become, in turn, the ground on which new kinds of power relations between political structures and their subjects can develop and flourish.

Martijn starts his book suggesting that it is our understanding of money, and specifically capitalist forms of money, that perhaps most remains trapped within these aneamic theoretical frameworks: money the great leveller, the standardised measure of value that converts difference into sameness, the incommensurable into the commensurable and the concrete and particular into the abstract and general. Money, as we all know, is a symbolic, mutually shared illusion, a social construct. But it functions very concretely, commensurating between widely divergent things to make exchange possible. As Martijn argues, we “get” this duality kind of instinctively, and do not experience it as confusing. In fact, we handle this duality effortlessly, and are capable of grasping money as both universal and particular at the very same time.

In other words, our use of money is buried in the realm of embodied practice, routine and habit (“practical consciousness”). It usually only enters the plane of thought and cognition (“discursive consciousness”) when we try to explain what it means, or to delineate its meaning conceptually. Or when something goes seriously wrong. Or perhaps when we’re considering our new investment in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, dispensing with conventional trust in institutions, central banks and government and learning instead to “trust in the code”, as they say. It is only at these points when we run into difficulties, and when money inevitably appears as a vexing limit to our knowledge.

But, otherwise, we live with and inhabit the paradox of money rather painlessly. Indeed, this duality of money is not primarily a theoretical or conceptual problem but a constitutive aspect of our relation to it. This is an important point, and Martijn unpacks the paradoxical aspects of a number of phenomena throughout the book, and not just in relation to money. So, for example, he brings this lens to bear on the neoliberal economy, on austerity discourses, on the history of progressive thought, on the neoliberal self-help culture and the financial advice industry, among many other things … And as he argues, “the task is therefore perhaps less to “resolve” the tension than to find a way to put it to productive use, to try to understand it as a constitutive aspect of the phenomenon we grasp”.

This represents a refreshingly new and original way of approaching contemporary political economy. It refuses the simple, formulaic explanation, the ready-made or predictable narrative, the solution already posed in advance of the problem, the party line. It is a position that rejects what Martijn himself calls the “conceptual trade-off” and instead attends seriously to paradoxical logics and intractable tensions, the difficulties and messiness of imbrication, the complexity and contingency, always highlighting the subtle and relational over the linear and straightforward, the uneven, volatile and unpredictable over the well-tempered self and the well-administered governmental subject.

Following this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion means that there never will be comfortingly simple or easy answers. Rather it entails a more phenomenologically-oriented path, one that includes appreciating and considering fully what has been described as capitalism’s “cruel optimism”, to quote Lauren Berlant again. That is, in other words, a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility, an attachment that continues to elicit hopeful anticipation even when it only delivers continual failure. Of course we know that our attachment to the promise is inevitably self-defeating and self-undermining but, again, that doesn’t stop us hoping it might one day be otherwise. Martijn unpacks the curious appeal of this paradoxical logic, suggesting that our efforts to realise the promise invariably fall short but that such failures have an uncanny way of intensifying our attachment to it. In this way, it has a similar structure to what Wendy Brown has described as “wounded attachments”, attachments which serve to intensify our faith in the very structure of connections that just let us down.

Martijn works with these cultural theories engagingly and deftly, especially when he brings them together with money and finance, subjects with which they’re not usually paired and takes them in new directions. I also think it was quite a brilliant move to make this paradoxical logic the key thread of the book, allowing him to demonstrate how the secularisation of capitalist relations produces its own forms of enchantment, spirituality and sentimentality. This is a paradoxical dynamic in which affect and emotion are central, and it is a dynamic which informs neoliberal discourses to an unprecedented extent, providing them with an affective charge and semiotic fertility that progressive perspectives have had difficulty being able to come to terms with, respond to or effectively counter.

From The Communist Manifesto Illustrated by Red Viktor (Red Quill Books, 2010)

From The Communist Manifesto Illustrated by Red Viktor (Red Quill Books, 2010)

But it is the discussion of money as an icon which provides the major point of entry for Martijn’s analysis of the emotional logics of neoliberal capitalism and which really forms the centerpiece of the book. As mentioned earlier, in practice we tend to incorporate, embody and manage money’s relational complexity rather seamlessly, we immediately grasp its meaning, we know how to use it, we intuitively understand what the sign is about, we just “get it”.

In contrast, we could consider the decidedly less paradoxical, and decidedly less interesting, body of critical writing about money. Just take as an example the tendency to discover, over and over again, that “money is a social relation”, an iterative gesture that, as Martijn quite rightly points out, signals above all else an actual inability to put that very insight to work. And if you think about it, everyone wants to say that money is a social relation, but they want to keep that relation as simple as possible, lest it get in the way of a more complex exposition of money as an ambivalent cluster of connections.  If the social relations are too complex, as they invariably are, you never really get to money itself, but if money is changing, as it obviously is, social relations must be changing too, but then it all gets too hard, so let’s just repeat that “money is a social relation” and be done with it, resulting in yet another static conception of the social relations that underlie money. And on it goes.

Instead of following this well-worn path, then, Martijn explores money as an iconic sign: it is both general and particular, objective and subjective, authoritative and personal at the same time. Its symbolism is not merely textual but affective, not merely cognitive but emotional.

MassumiIn this way, money’s iconicity is representative of the way in which forms of modern power work more generally: not simply through public demonstration, or internalisation, or a docile submission to power but rather by being charged with affect and by enlisting subjective associations and affinities. For while financialisation undoubtedly has the potential to monetise and commodify ever more aspects of existence, it also engenders distinctive affective and emotional logics that are emergent rather than rational, with chaotic, unpredictable effects that are unable to be determined in advance. In Brian Massumi’s words, such contingent dynamics make the economy more “affectively activating than it is effectively rationalising. It runs more on perturbations and cascading amplifications than determinate acts of choice … The process as a whole is neither governable nor quantifiable. It is affective-relational”.

Or to put it in more prosaic terms: In Catch 22 Yossarian states, “From now on I’m thinking only of me.” And Major Danby replies “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way?” “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?” Yossarian replies.

Again, I’d just like to repeat the relevance of this analysis for the contemporary context, and not least for trying to making sense of the financial crisis, including the considerable experiential and affective intensities involved in being “slapped by the invisible hand”, as one witty book title described it.

But it’s much more than this: New service industries specialising in ‘internet mood analysis’ now mine the online information posted by millions of Internet users, translating data to ascertain the affective state of the economy. A service such as ‘AlmagaMood’, for example, claims it specialises in ‘Leveraging Big Data to Enhance Investment Foresight’. Together with practices such as ‘sentiment analysis’ and ‘predictive analytics’, these are just some of the new forms of flexible and customised marketing ‘probing the emotional pulse of the Internet’. And as I read recently, let’s not forget that Facebook’s entire business plan is based on the liberation of desire.

Finally, I just want to mention Martijn’s analysis of contemporary austerity discourses. Again, in terms of our current “impasses of the political”, perhaps none is more pressing than finding more effective ways of countering hegemonic austerity discourse. For Martijn, most progressive accounts of the situation are highly problematic precisely because they are unable to grasp the highly politicised forms of democratic affect and morality that have shaped post-crisis politics. Instead, they fall back on well-worn critiques of rationality and possessive individualism, failing to appreciate the extent to which the austerity of neoliberal discourses can be both affirmative and redemptive, appearing not as abstention from life but precisely its opposite: the means to achieve an actualisation of the self and a threshold of renewal.

I feel like I’ve been far too nice and glowingly positive and should, following another social science template, now say something critical. I’m joking, of course, but if I were forced to criticise I would say that, as someone slightly allergic to psychoanalysis, I found the material on the narcissistic structure of the modern self the least convincing parts of the book. After the persuasive discussion of affect and emotion as immanent and virtual forces, the shift to a more conventional discourse of narcissism as a psychological interior state seemed a backward step to me. But I trifle.

And, so, I’d just like to end by saying that there is much to admire and recommend to you in this book. The political import of the argument bears repeating: that the ethical, emotional and affective appeal that is at the heart of neoliberal discourse should not be underestimated. It is only by developing an adequate account of the emotional pull and financial faith of the neoliberal social order that there is a chance of also discerning, exposing and hopefully contesting the contradictions at its heart.

And to end with Martijn’s own final words: “A sustained engagement with this problematic is likely to prove more fruitful than endless rehearsals of the critique of market disembedding, and more inspirational than the distant moralism of progressive thought.”


Fiona Allon
Fiona Allon is Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is a member of the Social Studies of Finance Research Network and her current research focuses on cultures of financial calculation in the everyday life of households, specifically in relation to the interface between home/housing, mortgage and financial markets. She is the author of Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home (UNSW Press, 2008) and writes on contemporary culture, economy and politics.
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  • raj ranganathan
    July 23, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    This book is written with great thought, hard work, passion, and belief that the intellectual people of this world will put into practice what people like Dr Konings spend their entire life writing about things that matter. We are presently living in an ethically, morally, economically, culturally, bankrupt world without thought or reason; only with bookish knowledge that it will take a long time before things come back to balance. And we, who have still some hope and faith left, believe.
    Kind regards,

  • Richard Smith
    August 9, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I can’t help thinking this piece would have been much better if you’d written more clearly. I don’t think the essential ideas (as far as I can divine them) are difficult but you seem to relish obscuring them with jargon.

    As for the public’s understanding of money – it’s precisely because the public doesn’t understand money (or rather credit /money creation) that the austerity narrative has gained such traction. Governments have convinced their public’s that (following the socialisation of bank losses) “we must live within our means” and have succeeded in equating government finances with personal finances.

    The average man in the street has no idea that central and commercial banks create credit with a few strokes of a keyboard – and that a central bank means a country can never run out of money. That credit is willed into existence to fulfil a need. If he did then the average man may well ask why QE couldn’t have been applied at an individual level to kickstart stalled economies post 2008 rather than just shovelled to banks.

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