Reply, ‘Always Already Podcast’ on Martijn Konings’s ‘Emotional Logic of Capitalism’

It was my pleasure recently to be invited by the ‘Always Already Podcast’ team to put in a guest appearance on their show, and respond to their recent episode on Martijn Konings’s fascinating book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism. They offered me a 10-minute slot, and ran it in Episode 19 of their Epistemic Unruliness series. Below, you can find a slightly edited and extended version of my remarks, which were provoked by their own engagement with Konings’s book, but also by my own, continuing work on austerity and recession in Ireland. For ease of reading’s sake, I have added in some material from remarks I made at another talk I gave on February 17, this year, at Ohio State’s ‘Research in International Politics’ (RIP) group, entitled Austerity as Tragedy? From Neoliberal Governmentality to the Critique of Late Capitalist Control:

First of all, thank you for your fascinating episode on Martijn Konings book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism. As someone who has really struggled with this book, your conversation helped me feel a little better about some of my own questions and unresolved issues with the text. In your discussion, you identified some specific tensions in the text, and those are worth recapitulating. But before I get into those specific issues, I should perhaps say a little bit about my own work, and why I find Konings so useful.

Now, by training, I guess you could say I’m an international relations theorist. I also dabble in international political economy. And one observation I have is that, while work in my field has been very good in terms of describing the technical aspects of austerity, the mechanisms by which it has been applied, etc., it hasn’t been very good in terms of understanding power in a quotidian sense. One of the better works, by Mark Blyth, for example, is still very much rooted in the idea that in order to explain today’s austerity we need to look at the genealogy of its technical prescriptions, and look at how these ideas were taken up and applied, by elites. So there’s very much this idea that austerity is a story that takes place in a very specific political realm, populated by intellectuals and politicians. The domain of everyday life, or of popular beliefs and feelings, isn’t really examined. Nowhere does Blyth explain to us how this neoliberal consciousness might have come to be so willingly internalized by the populations these elites govern!

For me, one case that really demonstrates this need to take seriously the role of everyday belief and feeling in IPE is that of Ireland’s ‘Great Recession’. The 2008 financial crisis hit Ireland very hard. Almost overnight, the country went from having a decent budgetary surplus to a 32% deficit, with a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio. The country was quickly forced to nationalize its largest commercial bank, and to take on the bad debts of a number of other banks. In what many interpreted as a sign of cronyism, however, it did this all without requiring any major reforms from the banks. Moreover, even the more obviously risky debts of the banks (the so-called subordinated bondholders) were guaranteed by the state. As a result, the country’s credit rating plummeted, and the government was forced to adopt quite serious austerity policies in order to restore international confidence. Two years later, in exchange for a bailout package, the state was effectively put into economic receivership by the European Union. Unemployment was now skyrocketing, benefits were being slashed. But most puzzling of all, there was very little by way of reaction from the population. Certainly there were pockets of resistance here and there, and in the last couple of years, admittedly, there has been a major uptick in civil disobedience and protest. But it would be a stretch to say Ireland has had anything like a Syriza moment. And the question for me, I guess, is how should we interpret such apparent acquiescence?

Now, obviously there are different ways one could approach this question. One could look at the influence of Catholic teachings on the population, or the relative absence of the Left in Ireland’s political development. These are all useful avenues of inquiry. For me, however, I am interested in exploring austerity as an expression of capitalist affect, and it is in this sense that the value of Konings’s work has become really quite apparent to me. He’s one of the few people in the field who is, I think, rising to the challenge of engaging this question of the practical side of neoliberalism. Konings’s big complaint with scholars like Blyth is the fact that they seem to share this sort of Polanyian mindset; the market itself is mere instrumentality, so, really, its the bad ideas circulating in the realm of politics that are the root cause of our problems! As Konings puts it, such scholars are possessed of a paradoxically economistic account; the market itself is seen as an abstraction, a cold “fiction that exists only by virtue of all-too-human irrationality.” For Konings, however, neoliberalism isn’t just a technical discourse circulating in a realm of politics that is disconnected and remote from the world of everyday life. To the contrary, its something that exists by virtue of an emotional investment that comes from the quotidian experience of life in the marketplace itself.

Now, as you guys noted in your episode, there are definitely some issues with Koning’s approach — in your commentary, for example, you raised the question of whether affect is exhausted by this notion of “constitutive relating.” Like yourselves, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the idea that constitutive relating should be part of the story. But you get the sense that Konings sees our everyday fixation with neoliberal values as a kind of accident. This is quite apparent in his understanding of our “wounded attachment” to iconic money.

Konings doesn’t really cite Foucault here, but to me he definitely seems to be picking up on Foucault’s discussion of the Christian pastoral, in his governmentality lectures. As Konings notes, Christianity didn’t like the moral relativism of idolatrous religion, so it developed in its place the icon, a “mundane technology” of abstract representation, which invited the subject not so much to worship a truth but to develop an intuitive, metaphor-based relationship to an infinite, and ultimately unknowable god. Well, for Konings, capitalist money sort of inherits this abstract power. Despite its self-evident nature as a social construct, money has this same paradoxical capacity to sustain faith, except now its not the investment in an infinite god, but an investment in the redemptive potential of a life in speculation.

Now, this argument of course tracks Foucault’s, to some extent; Foucault famously located the birth of modern government in the advent of the confessional technologies of Christianity. Yet he did not have an awful lot to say about political economy. In 2004, however, we did get a glimpse into Foucault’s view about contemporary economic theory, with the publication of a volume of his lectures, entitled The Birth of Biopolitics. These lectures are remarkable in the sense that they offer a detailed description of the genealogy of contemporary neoliberal thought — written in 1978, well in advance of the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher!

Interestingly, however, these lectures have been interpreted in wildly different ways. For some, they reveal a kind of anti-Marxist Foucault. So we have a lot of so-called governmentality theorists in my field, for example, who recognize Foucault as possibly the first theorist to grasp neoliberalism as having an anthropological ambition. This would be the reading that Philip Mirowski applies to Foucault, for example; that neoliberalism wants to use markets and governance to completely recast human life. But I think one big problem with this literature is that it seems to be completely fixated on abolishing any curiosity about Marx from Foucault’s oeuvre. Wendy Larner, for example, warns us that too many critical accounts of neoliberalism problematically “embedded in Marxist or Neo-Marxist theoretical traditions.” And Mirowski himself says that “Marxist concepts of exploitation and surplus value” can have no place in Foucauldian political economy.

Conversely, there is a whole other, more Marxist literature that believes Foucault was a neoliberal. Scholars like Zamora and Behrent, for example, argue that Birth of Biopolitics was actually written in praise of neoliberalism. And Mirowski kind of gets in on the action here, too, arguing that while it would be “an absurd counterfactual” to claim that Foucault was himself a neoliberal, he nevertheless “too readily” embraced “the basic neoliberal precept that the market was an information processor more powerful and encompassing than any human being or organization of humans.” But what evidence do these scholars offer to back up this idea, that Foucault “embraced” neoliberal concepts? None really, bar the fact that Foucault in his lectures seems content merely to describe the intellectual contours of neoliberalism, making little if any effort to subject them to any kind of critique. As the Political Theorist Mark Kelly noted in an article on Contriver’s Review, however, to deduce from this an idea that Foucault was somehow a crypto-conservative or neoliberal is quite counter-intuitive. At the core of Foucault’s teaching, says Kelly, is an argument “that human actions at a micro level combine together at a macro level to produce effects that may be unintended by the participants, but nevertheless shape our society and our lives.” Nowhere in his work did he ever back off this claim, and there is no reason to assume that neoliberalism would have been exempt from it.

Now, is this to say Birth of Biopolitics is a sufficient basis for a Foucauldian political economy? No. In fairness to the critics, they are right to intuit there is a problem with the text. As Jason Read notes, to be methodologically consistent with his formally-published works, the lectures in Birth of Biopolitics would have to focus on neoliberalism’s “existence as a practice and not just a theory diffused throughout the economy, state, and society.”

For me, this is where the value of someone like Konings really becomes apparent. Konings’s key insight is that money is the iconic means by which everyday constitutive relating takes place in capitalism. That is, in what the Polanyians grasped previously as merely the instrumentality of the marketplace, Konings sees instead an active assemblage that solicits a kind of subjectivity. For him then, it won’t be sufficient to do the work that Blyth does; that is, to simply expose neoliberalism as a kind of fraudulent consciousness. Icons, he says, may begin life as speculative, actively-produced symbolic condensations, which must struggle on the field of discourse to achieve dominance as the moral indexes by which we orient our daily interactions. But successful icons are more then the sum of this condensation. They are in fact those signs which have become short-hand, self-evident signals that “the autonomous regions of the brain” can recognize quickly, and which can therefore guide our pre-conscious, instinctual behaviors and as we go through our daily lives. They’re kind of like moral traffic lights; so universally and habitually obeyed that even those who might question them have no choice but to live their lives by them.

For Konings then, the icon is a kind of confessional technology, generating the moral dispositions that make certain discourses more likely to bear fruit. And for me, actually, this is the insight that Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism were missing. Foucault had intuited the core paradox of neoliberalism, which claims that the entrepreneurial subject simultaneously both is, and is in the process of becoming. Neoliberalism of course denied the economically rational subject posited by liberal political economy. But there was a problem here: if there is no naturally-given economic subject, how can you have a free market? Neoliberalism attempts to resolve this paradox, says Foucault, through its most central concept: human capital. According to this theory, because everybody’s body is understood as naturally possessing a certain capacity for generating wealth, any kind of activity that involves “substitutable choices,” or the application of a “limited means to one end among others” can be comprehended as an investment of one’s capacity for labor. And so it is through human capital that neoliberalism believes it finds its governmental leverage point. The neoliberal homo oeconomicus may not be a subject, but it is a productive potential, an “enterprise unit,” a “machine-stream ensemble” or even a “capital-ability.” Subjected to the right policies, human capital is a kind of pre-subjective potential which can be made to “accept” itself as an economic subject in practically every facet of its life.

Based on the above, I find it quite hard to read Foucault’s engagement as anything like an endorsement of neoliberalism. Clearly, neoliberalism is a kind of governmentality. Beyond this, however, what I think Foucault maybe missed (or somehow had to limit for sake of time — they were lectures after all, and not really suited to the sort of sustained, systematic engagement we typically see in his books) was this everyday, confessional element of neoliberal power. But what Konings I think offers is a way to start linking Foucault’s insights about neoliberal biopolitics to the very vindictive austerity that is today being imposed on European citizens. Now, I want to be clear, Konings himself doesn’t seem to want to go this far. In his analysis, he seems content to linger with the idea of money as a kind of tragic attachment. For him, the power of money lies in its essentially paradoxical nature. That is, because it refers to an unknowable god, our relationship to money’s truth must be immanent, or confessional. In this sense, for Konings, the quintessential example of populist neoliberalism is America’s Tea Party, and the moral redemption it seeks in a radically free market.

Such paradoxical orientations should not surprise us, says Konings. As the society of radically autonomous money, capitalism already primes us to engage with money in a non-idolatrous fashion, respecting its ability to convey value, while suppressing hope for any “magic” redistributions of wealth. With the advent of neoliberal financialization, however, the capitalist subject becomes even more compelled to pursue its moral perfection before money. And in times of financial crisis, this paradoxical attachment becomes all the more tragic, and stark: we tend to ‘double-down’ on the logic of money, to become narcissistic; demanding ever-more vigilance and self-control on the parts of ourselves, and others.

For me, however, this is the point where I feel there is a kind of accidental condescension in Konings. Ultimately, he sees neoliberal capitalism as a kind of unfortunate accident, bound up in our affective relationship to money. Indeed, in this sense, there is perhaps even a kind of residual Polanyism in Konings! To borrow from Frederic Lordon, Konings has us stuck in a kind of voluntary servitude to the icon. Our affective impulse is to keep returning to the icon, eternally confessing our self worth before it. Tragically, the enemy is us, and there is no way out.

Yet there’s a glimmer of an insight in Konings that I kind of wished he’d picked up further. And that is this idea — which he doesn’t really elaborate — of the successful icon as something which works by directly signaling the autonomic nervous system. Again, for him, our relationship to money’s sign is habitual, kind of like the way we respond to traffic lights. For Konings, money is the essential traffic light of capitalism. It is that through which the capitalist subject is signaled on a quotidian basis, to orient his or herself, and to act. But arguably it is Lazzarato (someone who’s work you’ve addressed in another one of your episodes) who shows us that this relationship is not really an accident at all. Rather, it is something that is essential for the reproduction of capitalism; it is something that is essential if the capitalist expropriation of value is to be continued.

Like Konings, Lazzarato is interested in traffic lights. In his hands, however, there is a lot more at stake in their use. Indeed, he describes them in terms of capitalist control and expropriation. In his book, Signs and Machines, Lazzarato argues that the political economy of austerity is itself premised on a kind of targeting of the autonomic body. That is, insofar as it passes an ever greater share of the cost of financialization into the sphere of everyday life, austerity reveals the extent to which the body is a stake in contemporary capitalist expropriation.

This is clear, for example, in the case of the unemployed, who are subjected to “dispotifs” of austerity which surveil and adjudicate over their performance, and have the power to signal both their “possible or probable action” as well as their “possible or probable statements.” What does this mean? On the one hand, the discourses of neoliberal governmentality call on the unemployed to become better confessional subjects of neoliberal value, subjecting themselves to further education, unpaid internships, and the like. On the other, they are now part of the non-discursive system of unemployment — they are components of an unemployment rate, the rate of successful internship completions, etc. — all of which signal to the unemployed and to the world that they are now merely technical quantities, a measure of the cost of labor’s availability, and readiness. These are dehumanizing designations, to be sure, but they can be deadly important for a nation’s recovery from financial crisis, as international ratings agencies pay close attention to such things. The point, however, is the unemployed in this sense are actually employed! They are caught in a structural double-bind, between the command to re-train, in the name of the nation’s need to return to competitiveness, and the precarious non-life of an impersonally-conceived reserve laborer.

So, I think the contrast between Konings and Lazzarato is quite stark, even tho they are kind of talking about the same thing. Konings is surely correct to argue that constitutive relating can be achieved by both conscious and affective means. But the critical point which is missing in Konings is any sense in which these forms of constitutive relating might also be a stake in the reproduction of capitalism. Whereas for Lazzarato, to borrow again from Lordon, the asignifying signs of austerity point a loaded gun at the head of the subject of contemporary capitalism. Austerity in this sense is a kind of control mechanism — an inescapable mesh, in the sense described by Deleuze, foreclosing the very possibility of departing from the axiom of autonomous money — and thus guaranteeing the recovery of value. It is not, therefore, that austerity so much presupposes a tragic self-subjection of mind and body as that it cruelly disciplines labor, revealing new depths to contemporary capitalism’s expropriation. A depressing note, to be sure! Yet, these two different accounts of austerity’s power have divergent political implications. One invites us to a politics where emancipatory solutions are to be found only by turning our critical attention inwards, and thinking about ways we might reorient our moral sensibilities. The other suggests the problem might not be so much to do with our subjectivity, but with the way we are subjected. Here, then, there is perhaps the ember of a strategic optimism; instead of preoccupying ourselves with perhaps endless debates about the extent to which we must purge ourselves of wounded attachments, the emotional equivalent of ‘false consciousness’, our time might be better spent orienting ourselves towards the disruption of the asignifying flows of the world’s financial assemblages, and democratizing the means of self-production. And how can this be accomplished, except through the construction of movements that can self-provision and articulate their own forms of asignifying power?