Monday, April 26, 2010

Human capital as financial instrument

From "The human capital strategy," by Morgan Adamson, Ephemera 9(4): 271-284.

Adamson writes about the ideological weight "huamn capital" carries as a concept.
In essence, the technology of human capital produces its object, human ability conceived of as a fixed form of capital, in order to measure it.
The qualitative nature of human experience and capabilities is flattened into something that can be quantified and captured by capital's investment schema.

Foucault explicitly examines the introduction of human capital into neo-liberal discourse in his lectures at the Coll├Ęge de France in 1979 as that which transforms the classical function of labour and homo oeconomicus into an “entrepreneur of himself” (Foucault, 2008: 226).
This seems like the fundamental form of alienation under the regime of financial capitalism. Less jargony: a persuasive selling point for capitalism is the idea of investing in oneself, of growing one's identity/subjectivity by using the analytical tools of capitalism, by collaborating with capitalism's ordering and taxonomizing schemes. We buy into the idea that the purpose of life is to grow ourselves like a business, rather than to merely live.

Adamson sketches the insidious development of instruments for investing in the income stream a person will produce in the future -- to buy an equity slice of a person in a modernized version of indentured servitude.
it is not merely the products of intellectual labour that are to be traded; rather, it is private rights to the actual “acquired useful abilities” of the population that constitute the commodity of human capital markets. Emerging markets in human capital are symptomatic of a tendency towards forms of exploitation of human life that are both innovative and anachronistic, in that they deploy long-standing forms of exploitation through new financial technologies.
Just imagine the derivative possibilities -- collateralized-labor obligations, with tranches of souls to match Huxley's vision in Brave New World.

Adamson points out that elaborating the concept of human capital leads inevitably to speculation in it -- that is why the concept is developed; it is a form of innovation allowing for new ways to invest idle capital for a promised return.