Thursday, June 17, 2010


From "Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism" by Michael Betancourt.

Though I am skeptical of the overall argument, I found this section interesting:
While digital capitalism may appear to be an affective form of capitalism, and to a certain extent it does deploy affective measures to achieve its ends, a more correct designation is agnotologic capitalism: a capitalism systemically based on the production and maintenance of ignorance. The accusations of fraud against banks such as Goldman Sachs for creating derivatives "designed to fail" and then claiming that these commodities are of the highest value demonstrates this process of misinformation designed to obfuscate, confuse and confound....
This agnotism affects all participants within digital capitalism, precisely because it is the enabling factor for the perpetuation of the cycle of bubbles and the escalation of values they create....
The affective labor created to address this alienation is part of the mechanisms where the agnotological order maintains its grip on the social: managing the emotional states of the consumers, who also serve as the labor reserve, is a necessary precondition for the effective management of the quality and range of information. The creation of systemic unknowns where any potential "fact" is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value renders engagement with the conditions of reality -- the very situations affective labor seeks to assuage -- contentious and a source of confusion, reflected by the inability of participants in bubbles to be aware of the immanent collapse until after it has happened. The biopolitical paradigm of distraction, what Prada calls "life to enjoy," can only be maintained if the underlying strictures remain hidden from view. If affective labor works to reduce alienation, agnotology works to eliminate the potential for dissent.

His point is that instruments like synthetic CDOs and fiat currency allow for the creation of fictitous capital, and someday we need to pay the piper. I think that David Harvery elaborates this theme a bit more lucidly in The Limits to Capital

But the idea of an economy that manufactures ignorance is worth developing. It has obvious connections to the prevalence of asymmetrical information. Markets don't necessarily reveal information or operate efficiently, and actors in markets have reason to try to prolong the ignorance of their trading partners. Persistent information asymmetry can destroy markets for goods of uncertain quality. Many businesses thrive on producing deliberate confusion in the populace -- mainly those that make money on charging unnecessary fees or are unusually aggressive in practicing price discrimination (itself often enabled by imperfect information). Also branding can be used to mask deficiencies in quality, so that consumers buy the idea of the brand rather than the usefulness of the product. Information about the brand's appeal can drown out information about the branded product's worthiness.

So there can be an ongoing incentive to produce and maintain ignorance, and keep people entertained and distracted so they don't bother to become better informed about the various contracts and deals they enter into as consumers. Another way of saying that: consumers are compensated for their ongoing ignorance in affect and pleasure.

Betancourt's position fits the argument that much of recent financial innovation has been precisely about obfuscation that (with the help of credulous rating companies) makes the implausible seem safe to institutional investors. Cf. Minsky's theories about capitalism turning cyclically into a huge scheme of finding the bigger fool to stick with the inevitable losses. Instead of producing socially necessary goods and services, we spend our time and energy trying to deceive one another and flatter ignorance.

Agnotology also fits with the capitalism's having to rely on "animal spirits" to sustain itself -- the resources needed to reproduce that sort of entrepreneurial zeal in successive generations are worth considering. The ideology of the competitive spirit needs to be produced that it such ambitious striving is its own reward, even in the face of repeated business failure and the corrosive emotional effects of a constant war of all against all. "Animal spirits" are a kind of willed ignorance (encouraged institutionally) of capitalism's detrimental consequences.

"Consumer confidence" is also related to the production of ignorance, if you accept that consumerism is not in the interests of those on the debt treadmill. To what degree is it a matter of ignorance of consumerism's systemic inability to satisfy us, its systemic propensity to instill insecurity and dissatisfaction? Are the means by which its measured a means of reproducing it, and its importance -- an effect of reflexivity à la Giddens? Massive efforts are made to manipulate people emotionally into a state of "confidence" (or desperation) that allows them to spend freely. A main product of consumer capitalism is this affect -- a tolerant view of debt; an eagerness for novelty; an overweening need to consume conspicuously; an optimistic vision of future prospects; an eagerness to substitute ownership for experience; and so on.

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