political economy in the open asylum

Money as Promise Once there was a time when the value of money was fixed by its relation to materiality. Money was tied to gold since the 15th century when trade in emergent international markets necessitated a replacement for the bartering and commodity exchanges of precious metals that had become inefficient. Although with notable exceptions the practice of fixing the value of convertible bank notes to a metallic standard lasted up until around 1973. As Franco Berardi summarizes

The presidents of the US in those times were like prophets, not because they predicted the future zeitgeist, but because they were powerful enough to imprint their will, or the will of American capitalism, onto the future. And Nixon did something very, very important as far as changing the future went. Well, he decided to free the dollar from the gold standard (U,87).

This is why bank notes to this day have something written on them that relates back to the conversion of paper to metallic substrate. The £5 note in my hand says that Clydesdale Bank “promises to pay the bearer on demand Five Pounds Sterling”. Explaining this to my partner’s six year old son takes me close to David Graeber’s much derided ontology of money that sums it up as a promise, an account that begins from a history that takes exception to idea it is routed in barter. Whether or not barter or debt came first is not my problem though, so I’ll sidestep that question entirely. For me the point is that Graeber’s intuitive theory is so simple a six year old can understand it. This might explain part of the backlash to the theory: how can money be so simply explained when we have all these enormous monolithic economic and political economic theories? It’s as if the charge of intellectualism is being made in an almost comical way: this is too simple! The complexity of our world requires a process of cognitive mapping that is equally complex and at home with abstraction. Simplicity is an abhorrent heresy. In an essay entitled To Have Is To Owe Graber stakes the simple claim that

Money is not a thing, and is certainly not a scarce resource. Money is a promise. And it is a promise we keep to those we value and break to those we do not.

It boils down to Graber’s assertion in the Guardian last year that ‘money is an IOU’. What circulates when money circulates is a series of expectations that largely come down to the ultimate reassurance that things will remain as they have been. That the money never runs out means that the order as it operates will never be threatened by a sudden cessation of that running. What marks the distinction between the money-promise and other kinds of promises is that one is never really expected to deliver. As such monetary exchange as promissory exchange is a system of expectation that includes its own negation as its possibility. Money does not really form a contract regarding the delivery of future metals or good or services. The power of money comes from the suspension of the impossibility of the promise to be kept such that monetary notes and saving have always been vouched for by the expectation that those underwriting the promise will remain solvent in perpetuity, or at least for a long time. There is therefore a lot of trust built into the system of expectation that work as a minimal guarantee. The Euro will continue to be valuable because the European Central Bank and the economic union will continue to pay out and to underwrite other promises of payment. What counts is the promise and not its realization. If the realization of the promise were at stake then money would immediately implode as it does whenever their is a run on the banks and people want to withdraw everything they have. Money becomes instantly devalued and the spiral inaugerates recession, depression, and the infamous images of German’s with wheelbarrows, updated a few years back during the 2008 financial crisis to well mannered British people queuing outside Northern Rock. In this analysis money is a promise to pay with the built in open secret of the counter-promise that no one ever really will. Dereferentialization and time In 1973 Nixon’s dissolution of the metallic standard revealed the structure of the promise all the more starkly and left it as the only force that “guarantees” money. Prior to this point one could still cash-in and one still had some material referent to ground the promise of payment and that for which it was exchanged. A labour contract states that I promise to pay the labourer an amount of money per hour for his labour. The problem then becomes one of measuring the value of labour in order to determine the amount of money the capitalist employer is to give as remuneration. Marx took this problem up to reveal the “double articulation” of labour in capitalist economies as “concrete” and “abstract” labour. In Capital he writes that

Tailoring and weaving, though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour-power. Of course, this labour-power, which remains the same under all its modifications, must have attained a certain pitch of development before it can be expended in a multiplicity of modes. But the value of a commodity represents human labour in the abstract, the expenditure of human labour in general.

While concrete labour can speak to the specific kinds of work that workers perform the concept of abstract labour is able to deal with the “human labour in the abstract” in one way or another, depending where you sit in value-theory and the degree of your attachment to the metaphysical mysteries of “labour power” itself. For many commentators on Marx abstract labour serves as a placeholder for money until the latter makes its appearance. For others money is just one form that value can take in its polymorphous transformations (value as a kind of becoming-capital or becoming-money and so on). While all this goes on the wage is tied to the hours worked by the worker in relation to that abstract labour taken as a measure of labour-power. I said that labour-power is metaphysical. This can be read as an insult. It can also be read in relation to Marx’s assertion that wages are determined by the ‘cost of production’ such as that is determined by

the labour-time necessary for production of this commodity: labour-power.

For people who have played with philosophy prior to the realization that Heidegger is a racist and to the idea that existentialism is just silliness, this takes on a specific charge. Time is the terrain of our existence, the plane on which we live, and it is the medium through which humans define themselves. Labour power is thus the name given to time as it is captured and swallowed up by capital; money is the name of that time crystallized into promissory notes and give back to us. This might be wildly inaccurate, and really only serves as an introduction to what I want to discuss below, but money almost seems like the form given to captured time as a promise of the return of that time on payment. When “I promise to pay the bearer” and the bearer is a worker what I am promising is time. As I say, this could all be wrong headed and horribly simple, but when we think about nest-eggs and savings and pension pay-outs we’re really thinking about a time when our existential time is no longer made into capitalized time. My Marxism has always fundamentally come from the realization that my own time had been stolen from me and given over to someone else, while I got the promise, as Wire put it, of evenings and weekends. Money is time. Or at least it was. When Berardi brings up the end of the gold standard (and Bretton Woods system) he does so to also mark the end of the age when money was tied to time as much as the metallic standard:

After Nixon’s decision, measurement ended. Standardization ended. The possibility of determining the average amount of time necessary to produce a good ended. Of course, that means that the United States of America, its president, Richard Nixon, decided that violence would take the place of measurement (88).

Goods and services used to be measured by the socially necessary (abstract) labour time taken to produce them. This is no longer the case. We entered a strange conjunction in the 1970s with Nixon’s abolition of value’s material reference system being part of a broader response what is now largely seen as a crisis in overproduction. Just as the material reference was lost so to was the standardized productive time that had operated as a key function in the equations that determined the production of surplus-value, or profit.

All of this is clear: value is time, capital is value, or accumulated time, and the banks store this accumulated time. Then, all of a sudden, something new happens in the relationship between time, work, and value, and something happens in technology. Work ceases to be the strong, muscular work of industrial production, and begins producing signs—products that are essentially semiotic. In order to establish the average time needed to produce a glass, one simply needs to understand the material labor involved in converting sand into glass, and so forth. But try to decide how much time is needed to produce an idea, a project, a style, a creation, and you find that the production process becomes semiotic, with the relationship between time, work, and value suddenly evaporating, melting into air (e-flux).

I am not interested in going over debates around immaterial or semiotic labour and take it as read that there are still industrial workers of the old type underpining all this in their neo-colonial situations. Nonetheless it would be useless to pretend that vast sector of production have become semiotic and that even where material production remains both necessary and ongoing it too is often deployed in the context of the end-point of semiotic consumption. The reliance on metallics and minerals in the production of the iphone is clearly very much on the material end of things but the iphone itself disappears behind its capacities as medium and sign. These workers are producing material artifacts that only really get produced at all insofar as they will be consumed for their semiotic powers and insofar as they are plugged into and maintained by the more directly immaterial commodity market of apps and finance capital and other commodities that take an informational form. There always remains a material substrate to both commodity and labour but it is nonetheless true that the majority of value-producing work is now performed either to produce info-commodities or by those info-commodities. Franco Berardi is clear about what this does to the relation between work, value and time in the semiocapitalist conjunction:

Info-labor, the provision of time for the elaboration and the recombination of segments of info-commodities, is the extreme point of arrival of the process of the abstraction from concrete activities that Marx analyzed as a tendency inscribed in the capital-labor relation. The process of abstraction of labor has progressively stripped labor time of every concrete and individual particularity. The atom of time of which Marx speaks is the minimal unit of productive labor. But in industrial production, abstract labor time was impersonated by a physical and juridical bearer, embodied in a worker in flesh and bone, with a certified and political identity. Naturally capital did not purchase a personal disposition, but the time for which the workers were its bearers. But if capital wanted to dispose of the necessary time for its valorization, it was indispensable to hire a human being, to buy all of its time, and therefore needed to face up to the material needs and trade union and political demands of which the human was a bearer. When we move into the sphere of info-labor there is no longer a need to have bought a person for eight hours a day indefinitely. Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers. Depersonalized time has become the real agent of the process of valorization, and depersonalized time has no rights, nor any demands. It can only be either available or unavailable, but the alternative is purely theoretical because the physical body despite not being a legally recognized person still has to buy food and pay rent (PR, 32-33).

Here Berardi is marking out what is distinct about the processes of precarization. We can extract two key elements here. First, the noncorporealization of labour and secondly, as its necessary concomitant effect,  the shattering of time. Of course one of the other effects that is really that which names these two is the emergence of a machinic capitalism that gets ever closer to Jacques Camatte’s prediction of ‘the complete autonomy of capital’ that he described as

mechanistic utopia where human beings become simple accessories of an automated system, though still retaining an executive role (WH)

except that this retention of ‘the executive role’ might have been a little ambitious. We are living in the time where Camatte’s dystopian texts on the material community of capital seem to be getting borne out. Already in 1973, the crucial year of the dereferenrtialization of value and its autonomization into financial fictions, Camatte had written a text that stated

Thus capital has effectively appropriated time, which it moulds in its own image as quantitative time… This capitalization demands that time be programmed, and this need expresses itself in a scientific fashion in futurology. Henceforth, capital produces time (AD).

Given all the above as roughly correct we have to ask what becomes of money. What is money any more if it has nothing to do with a material referent and a normative standard of time? Berardi has turned increasingly towards the dark theoretical outlook of Jean Baudrillard to discuss the semiotization of capitalism. One might expect that we could look to Baudrillard for an answer to the money problem. And we might be satisfied with Baudrillard’s discussion of money as it takes place in Impossible Exchange where he claims that money is related fundamentally to nihilism. If humanity is being progressively eliminated from and rendered redundant to capital’s (self)valorisation processes then money becomes a human fetish object. For Baudrillard

This fetishism of money, before which all activities are equivalent, expresses the fact that none of these activities any longer has any end-goal…[it is] the sign which will best express the meaninglessness of the world (IE, 127).

As Baudrillard said in Forget Foucault, money is nothing and does not exist. Baudrillard told us this secret back in 1977 just as the world passed beyond the time when money was linked to a material reference and to the organic body and time of the individual worker. ‘The secret of gambling is that money does not exist as a value’, says Baudrillard. Time implodes, capital autonomizes and yet money remains in circulation as if its promises made any sense anymore, as if the very grounds on which the promise is made had not been torn violently away. The gambler is the perfect image of the investment banker and futures market speculator who also knows that money does not exist and that it may be conjured out of thin air. Today quantitative easing does the same thing on huge scales, while the bitcoin miner might produce his own digital (small) fortunes, and the high frequency trading, having left humans behind, play with money like god’s with fates. The gambler isn’t interested in winning or losing, says Baudrillard, but only in the anticipation and the thrill of the game in that moment of temporal suspense and suspension before the dealer’s cards are laid down on the table or the roulette wheel comes back into focus out of its disorienting blur. Money isn’t tied to production, it just appears. And yet we are all still remunerated in some way. The wage relation still seems to be in place. I still have to hand over money when I buy bread and milk and beer. So what has money become when it no longer exists except as a sign of value’s disappearance from human hands? My suggestion is that as the world has become an open asylum, a madhouse in which we’re all more or less lunatics, money has become the reinforcer in a token economy. The token economy Although in use from the 19th century and popular in the 1960s it wasn’t until 1977 that a study would be published that claimed that the token economy was the best form of therapy for the mentally ill. That study, Psychosocial treatment of chronic mental patients: milieu versus social-learning programs, reported the findings of an in-patient “social learning program” that claimed to have assisted over 100 of the most chronically mentally ill patients to have adjusted to the expectations of social existence. As one review of the study pointed out the designers had found four major reasons why chronic schizophrenics “failed to get better”. These are listed as

They lack self maintenance and social skills, instrumental role performance, and community support; and they display high rates of bizarre behavior (A Review, 367).

A token economy is an in-patient setting behavioural modification system that utilizes systematic reinforcement of desired behaviours in order to achieve its outcomes. The target behaviours that token economies seeks to maximize are generally those associated with the four problems of the chronic ill patient highlighted above and can be seen to have their outcome as social adaption or ‘survival in the community’ (A Review). A token is any object or sign that can be exchanged for goods or services and as such operates in the hospital in much the same way that money does outside of it. An artifact of applied behaviour analysis the token economy was deployed throughout its history as a behaviour management and motivational enhancement tool among in-patient populations. Within these ward economies those patients who display or perform the desired behaviours are reinforced by the awarding of the token which may or may not be exchangeable. In many clinical settings these tokens might have been chips with a kind of rough monetary value that could thereby be exchanged in a tuck shop, or they may have been cigarettes, sweets or snacks that could serve as the basis of an informal economy on the ward itself. In effect the token economies were designed to motivate patients to perform the kinds of behaviours that one requires to navigate everyday life through positive reinforcement and by enforcing response costs, or negative consequences of failing to enact the correct behaviours. The structure of the economy is pretty basic given that it has only three main elements. First you have the tokens; second these tokens require backup reinforcers that give the tokens value (cigarettes, sweets, whatever); and thirdly the economy requires a schedule for reinforcement and exchange. Although they’ve fallen into clinical disrepute the empirical research tended to show that the token economy was a highly efficacious intervention. Indeed some commentators have been led to conclude that it was a decrease in time spent on wards by individual patients and the deinstitutionalization movement that finally did for the token economies as viable treatment options. At the core of these models is a distilled vision of capitalism in which one performs the right behaviours (work) and receives a token (money) that can be exchanged at a later date. When money becomes dereferentialized and ceases to be a quanta of time it becomes something much simpler and much more blunt: it becomes the token of reinforcement in a vast behavioural management system. Prior to the closure of the hospitals one could easily say that the token economies were about a cure that emphasized finding one’s place in the productivity of capitalism: work is the cure and the measure of adaptation. Today the token economy is the economy of monetary exchange and the wage. Today there is nothing but one vast open asylum in which ever increasingly autonomized capital must find a way to manage the burdensome and expanding human population. The token economy, a model of the capitalist economy, has become the sign of the economy itself. The wage is no longer tied to anything, based on anything, and can be said to exist purely as a disciplinary procedure aimed at reinforcing particular docile behaviours in the human organism. Money is no longer time or a promise but a simple conditioned stimulus. Money may be the best conditioned reinforcer that has ever existed given that it may be exchanged for almost anything on earth if one has it in sufficient amounts. This is all the parasitical classes ever do, and they may be read as petty behaviourists who believe in the power of work and a wage as reinforcement devices. This is precisely what underlies the Conservative ideology in the UK and that of the Troika in relation to Greece and the other debtor nations. If one does not work and pay one’s debts then one is outside the system of reinforcement. Once the system of reinforcement breaks down the patients are likely to try to take over the asylum. It used to be that the token economy modeled the capitalist society for the chronic schizophrenic in a bid to make him reenter the world of work and socially appropriate behaviour, such as performing the tasks necessary for his own social reproduction as a worker. All that has passed. Now the model has taken the place of the thing itself so that we all live within a great system of rehabilitation without end that constantly seeks to model and remodel our behaviour through these schedules of reinforcement. Just one more element of the generalized madhouse. Back in the early days of psychiatry Samuel Tuke wrote

Of all the modes by which the patients may be induced to restrain themselves regular employment is perhaps the most generally efficacious.

This is what work has become: a means of induced self-restraint. Work is no longer work. It is no longer formative activity (Hegel) or productivity (Marx), it is not what along side love keeps us sane (Freud) or an expression of our dignity (every socialist ever). Work is work-therapy, a system of behavioural modification, and the continued existence of money is as the empty form that is thrown back at us: a gold star on the chart, a medal pinned to the chest, a reward for being good boys and girls. What this means in terms of the ultimately dereferentialized (crypto)currency of bitcoin I’m not sure. Does Bitcoin represent money-as-hallucination at its peak, or is it as an impersonal algorithmically generated and valued currency the purest form of machinic domestication of human beings? If Bitcoin is a behavioural modification system then how does it differ from money? I’m not (yet) very up on all things Bitcoin, so I’d appreciate some pointers toward the answers to these questions. —- Jean Baudrillard. 2007. Forget Foucault. Semiotext(e): LA. Jean Baudrillard. 2001. Impossible Exchange. Verso: London. Franco Berardi. 2009. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the pathologies of the post-alpha generation. Minor Compositions: London. Franco Berardi. 2012. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Semiotext(e): LA. Jacques Camatte. 1973. The Wandering of Humanity. Online. Jacques Camatte. 1973. Against Domestication. Online. Graeber, David. 2014. To have is to owe. Triple Canopy. Liberman, RP. 1980. A REVIEW OF PAUL AND LENTZ’S PSYCHOLOGICAL TREATMENT FOR CHRONIC MENTAL PATIENTS: MILIEU VERSUS SOCIAL-LEARNING PROGRAMS’. Pdf. Karl Marx. Capital: vol 1. Online. Karl Marx. Wage Labour and Capital. Online. Further reading on Token Economies: Alan Kadzin. 1977. The Token Economy: a Review and Re-evaluation. 


1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:

    Continuing to view contemporary society as an open asylum this post looks at the function of money after it’s derefentializing.

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