Fillip 16 — Spring 2012

Affect & Exchange
Melanie Gilligan

In recent years, contradictions inherent to capital accumulation have forced an economic crisis and created an impasse in which extremes of economic inequality are intensifying. Rather than addressing these imbalances, most existing governmental structures seem to merely sustain the social order while assisting this process of uneven distribution. New social movements that include wide swaths of the population have begun to ignite across the globe, if only momentarily, in reaction to this situation. In this context, I want to present a series of arguments and speculative ideas that have been developing throughout my work as an artist and in my writing.

Having worked for the past six years with the subject of what a massive economic crisis such as the current one would do to the political landscape, my focus has been on representing systemic economic shifts while contrasting them with their affective impact on people. I have concentrated my attention on the forces that shape political life beyond the representational politics of parties and voting—in other words, the intersection of biopolitics and capital. Throughout my practice certain questions recur: What are the potentials for collective action in the present and how must it be reconceived in an age of ever intensifying economic determinism and biopolitical control? How can struggle toward collective goals also take the full range of each individual’s needs and desires into account? Can the individual subject be reconceived to incorporate the collective dimension that is always already contained within it? Can recognition of the importance of affect and emotions in politics help bring about new social scenarios? And, on the other hand, how do non-rational aspects of the subject, such as affect and emotion, become embroiled in processes of capital accumulation? Ultimately, I intend that all these inquiries answer a larger question: What can help us change the current political and economic landscape and enable us to overcome capitalism in favour of a new system in which accumulation no longer determines human interaction?

Obviously, some of these questions are monumentally complex; for me, a useful means of approaching them is to think through fictions. Philosopher Denis Diderot used imagistic moments in his writing (which he called hieroglyphs) in order to activate the senses and affects as well as the mind, and I work similarly in that I write theory that is also fiction and fictions that are also theories. Here, the fiction that I deploy is The Common Sense, a TV-series-like video project currently in development. Its plot is a thought-experiment bringing the basic elements of these questions into play and figuring out their ramifications.

The plot, resembling a science fiction, goes something like this: The story is situated in a fictitious “now” after a worldwide revolution against economic inequality has erupted. What has catalyzed these events is the invention of a new technology that allows people to feel each other’s emotions. Empathy and political solidarity suddenly become concrete and visceral sensations, bringing about strong desires for social change across the world. The relationship between individual and collective is suddenly profoundly transformed. Emancipation from economic bondage becomes the order of the day for many, but the problem is less figuring out what needs to be destroyed than what to build in its place. Moreover, this technological development that allows people to feel each other’s feelings is not unambiguously good, nor does it solve all the world’s social problems. While it creates possibilities for new modes of existence and collective social formations, it also leads to new contradictions and conflicts.

In the project, this technological device allows people to perceive their needs, desires, and feelings no longer only individually, but to also feel those of others as fully as their own and, as a result, individual interests become meaningless. Capitalism currently derives validity through its role in mediating all individual interests into coordinated relations of exchange, thereby sustaining the complex concatenation of value relations that have come to support all people’s survival. However, my fiction posits that if one can feel another’s needs as intensely as one’s own, individual needs become collective in a profound and ontological sense, and the necessity for a system that mediates the relation of an individual’s needs to the totality of everyone else’s dissipates. I focus my story of revolutionary upheaval on emotions and affects because these seem to be at once overlooked and misunderstood, but also incredibly important. Crises of the capitalist system hit us in the belly, in the nervous system, they mobilize our desires and fears, the place where the body’s physical needs and drives meet thought.1 In a capitalist economy, people satisfy their needs (for nourishment, shelter, etc.) through the use values of commodities; yet at the same time the availability of these commodities is determined by their exchange values, which are external to use and fluctuate according to the movements of supply and demand, determining their market prices. However, in an economic crisis like the one currently unfolding, people become acutely aware of how these exchange fluctuations control the most basic conditions of their physical existence. As such, the systemic crises of capital directly connect, through an umbilical-like tie, to immersion within physical, affective experience.

The approach I took in my serial video narrative Popular Unrest (2010) was to look at how emotions and affects are instrumentalized in capital accumulation and biopolitical control. In this text, I wanted to consider the other side of this predicament and ask what potential lies in affects and emotions relative to today’s and future politics. Occurring in the past year, the anti-government-cut protests and mass riots in the UK, anti-austerity protests in Greece, the Los Indignados movement in Spain, the Arab Spring uprisings and protests across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Occupy movement in North America, all share the quality of sudden massive upsurges of frustration and desire, of collective grassroots actions with people demanding change without being led or co-opted by existing organizations. Los Indignados and the Occupy movement especially seem to be riding a wave of feelings and ideas that are by no means uniform, but nonetheless manage to cohere sufficiently to give rise to mass action. At this moment, when multiple, self-organized people’s movements are taking on an active and important role in public life, it is significant to contemplate what bonds them together in the absence of strong leadership or explicit, shared principles and values.

Coverage in popular media as well as dis­courses within academic, political, and socioeconomic contexts, whether progressive or conservative, tend to position affect and emotion as irrational, biased, and illegitimate, and therefore dismissible—except when they instrumentalize public feelings in support of specific political goals such as a war. This residual legacy of Enlightenment epistemology considers emotions unalterably tethered to the incommunicability of individual experience while, in contrast, rational thought is seen to have the ability to open onto the social world because its innate medium is language.

To illustrate, Berthold Brecht famously intended to activate thinking rather than feeling through his plays. In a text contrasting conventions of the naturalistic dramatic theatre with his own epic theatre, Brecht described the main quality of the former as “feeling” that “provides [the audience member] with sensations,” while his own theatre is characterized by “reason,” which “forces him to take decisions.”2 Against affective immersion in theatrical representation, Brecht preferred a distanced appreciation of events that, he believed, allowed the audience to understand that characters, and by extension they themselves, are “alterable and able to alter”; in other words, their subjectivities and political roles are socially constructed and therefore can be reconstructed through political struggle.

By contrast, some contemporary philosophical and other academic and scientific discourses understand affect to overcome this relegation of feeling to the inner world of the individual. A good deal of this work departs from writings by seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who saw ideas and affects as two distinct modes of thought—with the idea as a mode of thought defined by its representational character and affect as a mode of thought “which doesn’t represent anything.”3 Spinoza defines affect as the body’s ability to affect and be affected, creating “modifications of the body whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained.”4 When the body receives external or internal physical sensation, it responds somatically to these stimuli and they coalesce as affects, prior to registering in the conscious mind of an individual. Subjectivity is therefore radically open to the world and to the other by way of this preconscious affect.

Spinoza’s proposition elucidates how affect escapes the confines of the individual subject’s interiority. To pursue this thesis further, it is useful to attempt a distinction between affect, feeling, and emotion, and to ask whether there is a concomitant social dimension to any of these phenomena, bearing in mind that the distinctions may be tenuous as such phenomena tend to elude rational analysis and nomenclature. In defining a theoretical framework for understanding affect, Brian Massumi proposes that affects are pre-personal while emotions are social. Massumi also mentions feelings, which can be interpreted to exist somewhere between affect and emotion, namely as affects that register in the subject’s conscious world of personal signification. Pre-personal affect is, according to Massumi, “a non-conscious experience of intensity” that “cannot be fully realised in language...because affect is always prior to and/or outside of consciousness.”5 Affects precede cognitive identification with a constituted subject, stand prior to social contextualization, and cannot be “owned” by a specific individual. This corresponds with what Spinoza would call non-representational thought. Conversely, Massumi calls feelings and emotions “recognized affect.” For Massumi, affects transform into conscious emotions, comprising dimensions of social relation and “discursively defined” signification that are socially communicable concepts—an operation that occurs retrospectively. Thus, emotions acquire an independence from the individual body from which they emanate, engaging instead with social and political life. It is therefore possible to surmise that feelings are an intermediate stage where initial processing of affect emerges in the individual psyche, describing a point between pre-personal affects and emotion as a social process. As such, feelings are the only point in this process that can rightfully be considered confined to the individual’s inner world.

It is an assumption of the various hard sciences concerning subjectivity—such as neuroscience, cognitive science, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence—that subjective experience is determined by physiological changes, and the popular media tend to concur. In my new video project, The Common Sense, technology allows people to feel each other’s feelings, but not to know each other’s thoughts. This technology is therefore only able to read affects and convert them into data, reflecting a fact regarding contemporary scientific research: that it is unable to register conscious thought, just physical outcomes generated by affects such as changes in body chemistry, temperature, blood pressure, etc.—in other words, Spinoza’s non-representational aspects of thought.

My fictional scenario further suggests that affects are also potentially more susceptible to biopolitical control. If emotions are linked to the realm of traditional party politics and political action, affect, I suggest, is what connects subjectivity to biopower. It is no coincidence that the word “feeling” can indicate both physical and emotional sensation because the realm of feelings describes the blurry border between body and thought, which, for the contemporary sciences, articulates preconscious affect as a bridge to grasping the otherwise elusive qualities of human behaviour generated by conscious thought.

Biopolitics, for Michel Foucault, is a distinct form of power that deals neither with society nor with the individual, but emerges as a conception of the social body as the object that government seeks to sustain. Biopolitical power treats populations as a body whose health requires care and, as such, must be treated as a total system. Biopower acts on this system preventively, reforming it biologically, politically, and scientifically to optimize the survival and productivity of the population as a labour force. Biopolitical forms of governance aim to maintain the functioning of the social body within a relatively homeostatic range through pre-emptive regulatory actions aimed at averting forecasted dangers—such as economic crises or terrorist attacks—that could imperil the life chances and productivity of, not individual bodies, but the entire social body. This need to recognize and productively process aleatory and unpredictable phenomena that can impact a population is precisely the reason why affect is increasingly important in our culture: it is the physical, and so verifiable and localizable, link to unpredictable conscious thought.

Today, responsibilities that used to fall to the state, such as the social reproduction of labour power through providing health care, education, etc., have devolved to individuals themselves, who now must look to private services to meet these needs; similarly, biopolitical planning and pre-emption have become common practice for private businesses, representing corporate and financial interests. In this model, businesses police individual behaviour as a means of ensuring profits (e.g., through various kinds of insurance), or individuals self-police to avoid costly charges. Accordingly, more and more contemporary structures of social reproduction are negotiated on the free market. Through the highly financialized global market and its relentless demands to maximize profit, powerful mechanisms have evolved that allow companies to operate with a biopolitical modus operandi of prediction and pre-emption that mirrors the behaviour of the state. As a result, we see a more profound merging of the capitalist subject’s social reproduction with the reproduction and expansion of capital. Individuals are asked to use principles of intelligent investment regarding their personal human capital, and their actions must not only be effective, but project a picture of future smooth functioning. Maintaining health, efficiency, social skills, conviviality, physical attractiveness, and countless other qualities means that we protect ourselves as our own best investment, an investment from which we cannot divest ourselves. Little investment in one’s own human capital makes for a business risk, and if business will no longer invest in you, no one will. The examples above are extended instances of what Marx defines as real subsumption,6 in which the enhancement of productivity and the decrease of the costs of workers’ reproduction allow the capitalist to extract more surplus value. As a condition of labour under capital, real subsumption becomes generalized and, as such, impacts more and more aspects of the individual’s existence. People allow these forms of real subsumption into the most personal corners of their lives because it is in their immediate interest and, in some cases, necessary for their survival.

The Social Body of Contemporary Capitalism

Although representational electoral politics today is still predicated on a social body that is composed of sovereign individuals modelled on the modern bourgeois citizen, in the contemporary tango of biopolitics and capital, individuals become mere cellular units. They break down into information parcels in the data representations of state and capital, dividuals7 endlessly divisible and reducible to consumption preferences, affiliations, and online user-histories. As manifold characterizing data sets, individual identity and behaviour are fragmented; we are broken apart and reassembled algorithmically—mapped, assessed, targeted, and predicted regarding our usefulness for capital accumulation. Capital has always linked all activity through the socially negotiated interconnection of exchange so that any value is related to the movements of the total system. Now new forms of calculating individual identities are increasingly unifying those identities into one social body: capitalism.

I would assert then that capitalism and its diverse markets are the social body that biopolitics protects. Biopolitics has evolved as the perfect political form for advanced capitalism and its future orientation assists a corresponding tendency of capital accumulation. Health for capitalism, however, means constant expansion—“economic growth,” in popular parlance—and, we are told, it is essential to our survival. In the pursuit of growth, capitalism comes to acquire remarkably subjective qualities. As Karl Marx explains, capital is a substance that propels its own self-expansion and self-reproduction (or its self-valorization, as Marx calls it), and as such it acquires a certain agency of its own.8 Marx draws a parallel between capital and an independent subject when he says: Value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, [produces] surplus-value from itself...and thus valorizes itself independently.9 When Marx says “subject” here, he is playing on Hegel’s use of that term, meaning that value moves according to its own internal (quasi-dialectical) logic of progression. However, he is also describing the uncanny condition experienced by all wage earners, whereby capital, brought into being by people as a means to exchange their labour and goods, becomes itself the main determinant of their activity, and capital’s expansion becomes the aim for which they are compelled to strive. Exchange value stands “over and against” them just as in capitalism, a worker’s labour comes to stand “over and against [the labourer] himself” in the form of the commodities he produces.10 It is also in this ability of value to become autonomous where capital’s future-orientation lies; the process of self-valorization must take place after investment and production, through exchange at a later date. Capital’s expansion acquires a general focus on the future, which, as we will see, takes on further dimensions of agency today.

The global economic crisis of the past five years has particularly highlighted the interconnected nature of capitalism. What I call the social body of capitalism—said quality of subjecthood and interconnectedness—is more visible in times of crisis when fear of contagion adds instability to markets’ already volatile tendencies. A major trend in finance that has developed since the onset of the crisis is behavioural finance. Its goal is for traders to better understand and outwit the collective emotions, or animal spirits,11 of the market, while also better managing their own emotional responses. Financial crashes and investor fear is not new; however, there are now financial instruments12 created to ensure profits in any future outcome, thereby adding incredible volatility to the markets and instigating a much more perilous future as they redistribute the risk worldwide. Ironically, in order for individual investors to expand their own capital, they look for looming crises as opportunities. Investors are ostensibly afraid of the risk of buying a nation’s bonds, therefore demanding a higher return on the national debt they are holding—but in actual fact, this is now a common way to make money: to ride the waves of fear in the markets in order to buy low and sell high. I argue that capital is a social body because it develops from this future-orientation a tendency toward collective reaction that then translates into behaviours, decisions, likes, and dislikes.

This subject-like agency of value and of capital is increasingly palpable in the activity of the financial markets as the euro crisis persists, collapsing nations and ousting politicians, and also in countries like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, which have been forced by markets and international financial organizations to implement austerity measures as a means of cutting their deficits and, even more disturbingly, to suppress protesting populations battling against these measures. In the past few years, and especially during the euro crisis, the roles of governments and financial markets have actually appeared to merge as financial markets increasingly affect social policy. In November 2011, the financial markets effectively ousted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi,13 an event followed by an urgent scramble to put a new government into place before the opening of the markets on the next business day. On November 18, 2011, the Financial Times published a striking headline: “Rajoy begs for ‘more than half an hour’: Spanish conservative leader asks markets for time on economy,”14 which means that Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish conservative leader who was expected to win a general election the following Sunday, was using the Financial Times as a way to speak to the spirit of the market.

Nowadays, it is a common enough occurrence to hear financial news announcers talking about what the market “wants” and “feels.” Through collective financial market emotions such as fear and wariness, the financial markets effectively mobilize forces to administer social laws and ordinances more powerfully and with more finality than the United Nations or any other international governing body. With the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization as its foot soldiers, the market’s “feelings” become instant realities. Massumi uses the term “affective facts” to describe moments when contemporary governments—and, one might add, markets—convert possible outcomes into very real facts through the self-propelling force of affect. According to the theorist, affect provides a continuity and connection where actual or factual outcomes have yet to solidify, so that pre-emptive measures transform forecasted future events into conditions in the present.15

In this context, it is important to understand capital as a totality, because capitalism reproduces the whole of social relations16 and capital production only happens if capital’s constituted totality is already presupposed.17 However, despite the fact that the financial markets take on a quality of agency in a similar manner as value, the collective will of the financial markets does not entirely represent something akin to the collective decision-making process of capital as a totality. Marx described that totality as the “total social capital,” the disparate, incalculable whole of all the individual capitals in their dynamic concatenation, and reproduction,18 contending that capitalism cannot be understood without conceiving of this dimension of abstract totality.19 However, the gestalt that is formed through collective actions of financial industry and the collective thinking of investors only represents the decisions of the few able to capitalize on the movements of capital. The totality of capital creation is not expressed there, but from capital’s own perspective it is, treating the market as if it is that collective mind of capital.

Exchange puts all commodities and activities into abstract relation—including people’s production and their social reproduction through, for instance, labour, consumption, education, health care, and leisure. Exchange links millions of individuals because relations of equivalence are established through the measure of value, the labour embodied in a commodity. Money then allows this equivalence to be put into practice—such as, for instance, the equivalence between two commodities: “The value of this ham equals two pieces of plywood.” These two different commodities do not have to be directly compared because they can be traded, their value measured via a third commodity, money. Money comes to represent a third term that is in a sense a measuring stick that externalizes the judgment that determines equivalence. The sophisticated complexity of the contemporary financial markets pushes this process of making disparate commodities equivalent into overdrive. Today investors can compare the rates of return on any tradeable commodity be it service work, factory labour, food, oil, metals, real estate, or currencies, and demand that they are competitive in comparison with one another. As a result each person’s labour, wherever he or she is in the global nexus of accumulation, is increasingly subject to pressures to render his or her labour competitively profitable (e.g., work for decreased wages to increase productivity). Contradictorily, the incredible abstraction of capital that puts all human activity into relation, an ability that under other conditions could hold a wide-ranging collective potential, only exists to be deployed for an extremely narrow and destructive purpose: that of accumulation through extracting value. Capital’s need to expand (it cannot exist without expanding) constrains people’s social and collective existence, since through measurement and exchange workers face their own labour—in the form of products of labour—as alienated from themselves. In the current economic crises we see the unleashing of further intensive biopolitical regulation and the expulsion of labour power from production (e.g., layoffs) because it is becoming ever more difficult for capital to ensure future value accumulation.

What follows will be some quite speculative and potentially contentious conclusions that I have drawn from my experiment in fiction. As Marx suggests, capital may not be the end condition of life for humans but a phase that sets the ground for a much better organization of human energy. What many people lack today is an idea of what that “something better” could be, having lost the belief that an alternative system to capitalism—such as socialism or communism20—is workable or desirable, and are haunted instead by the indelible images of failed revolutions. This might be why movements such as Occupy Wall Street do not project a picture of the changes they want to see but rather the affective intensities of needing things to change. It is therefore important at this moment to allow for political thinking that is speculative and even far-fetched. Here is one possible conclusion to the storyline of The Common Sense: We find ourselves in a future moment, when the full implications of the new, affect-connecting technology have been realized. A new collective form of self-government has evolved around the technology whereby individual interest no longer exists but rather the technology mingles all emotional feeds, giving a sense of the collective feeling of every person around the world.

If, as in my video fiction, individual needs were overcome entirely, it would no longer be necessary to consider how these needs are mediated and put into connection. But as this technology does not exist (and many would be incredibly thankful it does not), and individual consciousness is a condition that must be done justice and grappled with, I am wondering whether some possible form of self-organized mediation of individual needs that is not in itself a form of exchange or population management could be part of a discussion of future communization. Toward this aim, I would like to briefly consider how capitalism itself, a system that is really just people plus money, is able to evolve a self-propagating, self-sustaining complexity that acquires collective behaviour, decision-making ability, and affects. The ailing system of capitalism has dimensions of self-organization, but these are always tempered by the control exerted through the ostensibly fair but entirely exploitative and inequitable exchange relations of labour in capital accumulation. While it puts the unfathomable complexity of all individual human needs and desires into abstract relation, it does so by aggregating wealth in the hands of an ever more exclusive few while broadening poverty and misery. Are there ways of retaining this ability to construct relations and logics in practice while eliminating value and the value measure? If so, this could be very useful for a society that is collectively self-organized. But this would be contingent on a host of questions: Who would be building this society? Would certain people have the blueprint and not others? If we think of human action today as linked by, but not by any means reducible to, the totality of capital, the question, theoretically speaking, is how to abolish value while preserving the virtual potential inherent to capital—that of the abstract connection of human activity. Collective action needs then to be reconceived in terms of its own total collective system logic and the fight against capitalism must be understood as an assault on the system as a totality. To this end, I would like to consider how one might imagine new social forms that are adequate to today.

The conclusions that I draw here will move concisely through a series of ideas for the sake of brevity. First, I refer to a revolutionary event that attracted Marx’s attention in 1844: the Silesian weavers’ riots.21 Marx says of the event: “We have seen: a social revolution possesses a total point of view because—even if it is confined to only one factory district—it represents a protest by man against dehumanized life.”22 He goes on to say that from the point of view of the particular individual, social revolution is able to address issues that face the collective, and he credits the logic of Silesian weavers with more insight than the great German philosophers and political vanguard of their time. Reading Marx’s analysis, it is clear that it is not the weavers as individual geniuses that are under discussion but rather the genius of their actions, which, one can assume, would have combined affective impulse with rational decision-making. Commenting on Marx’s discussion, Raya Dunayevskaya calls what is operating here “not only [a] revolutionary force, but...Reason” itself.23 In other words, the activity of the group takes on a total logic, a thinking of its own, not of individuals, but of the group and the class as a whole.

But what is this coherence in collective action such that it acquires a collective logic? Is it the result of shared frustrations and anger? Or of shared demands and grievances, rationally discussed and planned strategies put into action? Obviously, the historical remoteness of the weavers’ rebellion works against our finding a definitive answer; however, it is useful to consider the concept of transindividuality, an idea proposed by philosopher Gilbert Simondon, in order to comprehend what allows the distinct actions of a group to combine into “reason” itself. Simondon’s understanding, summed up by Jason Reade, is that the very things that form the core and basis of our individuality, our subjectivity, sensations, language, and habits, by definition cannot be unique to us as individuals. These elements can only be described as pre-individual, as the preconditions of subjectivity.24 As Brecht after Marx made clear, we are constructed by our social world, and so the social components that make us, as well as our biophysical “sensations and drives that make up the biological basis of subjectivity,”25 are transindividual qualities that cut across our separate individual subjective lives and link us in differential relations to one another. There are moments when the preconscious intensities of affect, in their reaction and non-linguistic association with others, can work in such a way that they respond to social collective logics. We can conclude from our earlier discussion of affect, feeling, and emotion that these two non-individual aspects pass through the subject as feeling. From this perspective, feeling comes to resemble a door perpetually swinging open—either in the direction of the body’s physicality on the one hand, or toward the collective dimension of the social world on the other—briefly internalizing and reforming the external as actions and thoughts. This double openness of transindividuality holds great potential for the emergence of new forms of collective organization.

Marx and Dunayevskaya describe a logic of the total system that articulates itself in actions, while previously I discussed the totality of the market that is increasingly being understood to embody a collective thinking of capital. If we look more closely at the collective logic that emerges in exchange (i.e., in action) it is helpful to consider Marxist philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s concept of what he calls exchange abstraction.26 Sohn-Rethel founds his definition of exchange abstraction on the act of commodity exchange, explaining that the abstraction brought about in exchange does not necessitate the formulation of concepts of equivalence in the mind of an individual. Rather the abstraction at work in all exchange occurs through social practice. Money allows the abstraction of equivalence to be realized in practice rather than conceptualized by the individual because with money, exchange negotiations by those bearing values in the form of commodities can now refer to money as an externalized form of judgment. This provides a sense of what the collective thinking of capital really is—individuals carrying out a logic in their actions, without the necessity of conscious thought or collective organization of decision-making, through an externalized measure. The logic that they are carrying out is a logic of the total system, of capital’s presupposed totality.

In a sense, the operation of exchange abstraction shares similarities with what Marx and Dunayevskaya describe in the Silesian weavers’ revolution; both display a logic that emerges through collective action, a thinking-through practice that is independent of individual conscious thought. What conducts the Silesian weavers’ logic is affect; in exchange abstraction the factor that coheres behaviour into a system logic is a means of externalizing judgment, value, and money, the means of measuring labour. The measure mediates individual needs between people through enabling exchange. In my fiction, the sharing of affect is potentially a means of eliminating the need for value and measure, replacing money’s externalizing, abstracting function by offering an alternative connective medium. Affect is not a phenomenon that is conducive to measure. However, the measurement of that which is not conducive to quantitative measurement is the core of capital’s tendency toward crisis and its tendency to subordinate. It is precisely the insistence to impose measure on what does not conform to measurement—phenomena such as social skills or risk—that exerts a wholly capitalist kind of brutality. For instance, labour possesses dimensions beyond the qualities measured as value. Value is only ever a pathetic approximation that comprises one aspect of labour—its productivity within time—yet this concept has come to define labour. A good description of real subsumption via measurement is provided by the world of technology startups where, famously, the key to developing a sought-after, billion dollar technology is to invent a way to quantify things that are as of yet unquantifiable.

While all our activity continues to be submitted to value as its measurement, seemingly emancipatory alternative means of organizing work (e.g., through self-organized workers’ collectives or the limitation of labour-time to only the amount socially necessary for production, thus eliminating surplus value) will eventually give way to a return to capitalist business as usual, as many historical examples have shown.27 The same is true for alternative exchange systems; for example, Proudhon’s idea of “labour-money”: time-chits whereby labour is directly exchanged, unmediated by money.28 Marx criticized labour-money as simply rejecting the mediation of money while perpetuating the measurement of value.29 It was clear to Marx that overcoming capital could only be effected by doing away with the measurement of value altogether.

If as long as the value measure is in place, and all attempts to live differently are swiftly drawn back into the capitalist vortex, then the most pressing question is how to eliminate value and its measure, money (an idea that most would consider fiction). For contemporary ultra-left theorists of communization such as Gilles Dauve and the group Endnotes, the aim is to avoid imagining the story of how communism might come about in the way many conventionally have done: first capitalism must be overthrown and then communism can be put in place. Instead, these thinkers propose a process of communization in which revolution consists of practices that in themselves challenge value’s stranglehold on existence and dissolve the value measure. The instigation of situations where “everyone participates on the production of their own existence”30 would need to be an ongoing part of revolution. However, many of these thinkers intentionally refrain from attempting to imagine what form these practices would take or how, if at all, they might be organized.

For Marx, the development of the productive forces in capitalism, which include all human capacities, provides the means of realizing communism as a latent potential. Which then begs the question: What aspects of capitalism can we transform in order to assist the process of extinguishing value? Capitalism enables an infinitely complex interrelation and (im)balance between the needs of billions of individuals through the process of exchange equivalences. Today, the concept of mediation necessarily brings associations of exchange value and money, or management by the state or by businesses, but would these associations still prevail in a world without value? Rather than having to delimit communal life to a local scale, as most discussions of communization seem to advocate, is it not preferable to imagine how a system of externalized practice-thought could acquire its own self-moving autonomy that is useful to communization? Could exchange abstraction’s thinking-through practice—emptied of its core mechanism, the measurement of value—be transformed into a new version of the collective reason-through-practice akin to the Silesian weavers’ riots? What other kind of externalized judgment could create a thinking-through practice and how?

At the end of this investigation into the current state of capital’s economic and biopolitical totality, a feat of imagination is needed to picture how our own total system logics can overthrow the totality of capital. Affect, rooted in the physical and non-conscious, is understood by science to be universal and material, and so it can, at least in this sense, be externalized. Could affect then hypothetically aid the process of communization by fully realizing and unfolding its potentials rather than being relegated to just another tool in the accumulation of capital? A better understanding of the transversal openness of our subjectivity appears to offer a promise for building new practices that emerge from solidarity rather than the opposition of competing needs.

And yet, a shift out of capitalism is a process for which the imagination cannot prepare as the end of value’s domination would create unforeseeable conditions and forms. Current notions of prediction and measurement would no longer apply. At this point fictions become important, and faith in fiction is needed in order to help construct truths that currently don’t exist.

  1. See my work Self-Capital (2009) regarding my approach to translating these conditions to a video work. Find Self-Capital online in three parts via my YouTube channel:
  2. Bertolt Brecht, “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,” Brecht on Theatre, trans. John Willett (London: Methuen, 1964).
  3. Gilles Deleuze lecture, Spinoza, January 24, 1978, trans. Timothy S. Murphy,
  4. Benedict de Spinoza, Works of Spinoza, vol. 2, trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 130.
  5. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). The reading of difference between affect, feeling, and emotion is taken from Eric Shouse, “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal 8, no. 6 (December 2005),
  6. Real subsumption is a means of increasing the surplus value extracted from labour through boosting productivity. There are two ways in which the capitalist can increase the quotient of surplus value that he or she makes in production: formal and real subsumption. Formal subsumption is the extension of time in the working day. Real subsumption is the implementation of novel technological, social, or organizational processes (to name a few) that increase productivity, hence decreasing the amount of time needed to create the same amount of surplus value. If less socially necessary labour is required in a workday and the capitalist maintains a workday of the same length, this will deliver a larger amount of surplus value. Real subsumption is a condition that increasingly touches all parts of our existence as more and more aspects of our lives are optimized to increase productivity and profitability.
  7. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October, no. 59 (Winter 1992),
  8. The process of capital accumulation that enables capital’s own reproduction and expansion (as theorized by Marx in its simple, not expanded—more complex and non-linear—form) involves capital investment in production, which produces commodities that are sold for more capital than what was initially invested, which in turn is reinvested in producing more commodities, which bring in more capital, and so forth, creating a cycle of expansion. This expansion and multiplication of capital (on an individual level) happens through realizing the value of commodities (or valorizing them) in circulation and exchange, a process of expansion that is mirrored on the level of capital’s self-valorization as a whole.
  9. Karl Marx, “The General Formula for Capital,” in Capital (1867), vol. 1, chap. 4, Author’s emphasis. Marx goes on to say that “its valorization is therefore self-valorization. By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs.” To be clear, when Marx, or I, say “value,” this is defined as the socially necessary abstract labour embodied in a commodity. This definition of value as “socially necessary” labour means that the labour inherent to a commodity is determined by contextual conditions such as the price of the workers’ housing, food, and other consumption, as well as the rate of employment, demonstrating how each variable is always determined by all the other variables and thus the total system of capital.
  10. Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1932), All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.
  11. John Maynard Keynes, “The State of Long-Term Expectation,” in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, (Cambridge, 1936),
  12. For instance, credit default swaps (CDSs) that are at the heart of the current euro crisis—which are literally a contract (mainly backed by banks) agreeing to swap a debt asset should the debtor default—are, in volatile times such as now when the European bond market is collapsing, instigators of a much more perilous future as they redistribute the risk of debt far beyond Europe.
  13. Many articles can be found describing the situation in these terms, including Guy Dinmore, “Could Berlusconi Gambit Buy Him More Time?” Financial Times, November 8, 2011. After Berlusconi’s resignation the article stated that Berlusconi’s “coalition is under notice from European partners and panicking debt markets that he will honour his commitments quickly.” See also: Victor L. Simpson, “Silvio Berlusconi Resignation: Billionaire Slain by the Markets,” Huffington Post, November 8, 2011,
  14. Victor Mallet, “Spanish Frontrunner Begs for ‘More than Half an Hour,” Financial Times, November 18, 2011.
  15. Brian Massumi, “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact,” Conference Proceedings from Genealogies of Biopolitics, accessed January 9, 2012,
  16. It is not only workers and capital that is reproduced, it is the state and all its organs, the family structure and the system of gender relations, the constitution of the individual as a subjectand so on. “Crisis in the Class Relation,” Endnotes, April 2010,
  17. It is a totality in Hegel’s sense, in that, after passing through different stages, the totality preserves within itself all of these stages as elements in its structure and can only be comprehended as a whole, not in its parts.
  18. That totality is what Marx described as “total social capital,” the disparate whole of all the individual capitals in their dynamic interrelations, concatenation, and reproduction, including their roles in social reproduction. Karl Marx, “Introduction,” in Capital (revised 2nd ed. of 1885 publication), vol. 2, chap. 18,
  19. Geoff Pilling, “The Concepts of Capital,” in Marx’s Capital—Philosophy and Political Economy, accessed January 8, 2012,
  20. I myself subscribe to the notion that communism as first envisioned by Karl Marx was never realized in any of the real world social systems that came about in the last century.
  21. In Germany, crowds of weavers fighting against poor labour conditions rioted, destroying machinery along with the deeds to the machinery, demanding money from local merchants.
  22. Karl Marx, “Critical Notes on 
the Article:
 ‘The King of Prussia 
and Social Reform. 
By a Prussian,’” Originally published in Vorwäarts!, no. 63, 
August 7, 1844.
  23. Raya Dunayevskaya, “Practicing Proletarian Reason,” accessed December 30, 2011,
  24. Jason Reade, “The Production of Subjectivity: From Transindividuality to the Commons,” New Formations, no. 70 (Winter 2011), 118.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Manual and Mental Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1978), 25–29.
  27. Gilles Dauve, “When Insurrections Die,” Endnotes, October 2008,
  28. The contemporary art context equivalent to labour-money is Time-Bank by e-flux. See
  29. Karl Marx, “The Chapter on Capital,” in Grundrisse, accessed December 30, 2011,
  30. Gilles Dauve, “When Insurrections Die.”
About the Author

Melanie Gilligan is an artist and writer based in London 
and New York. She has written for magazines and journals such as Texte zur Kunst, Mute, Artforum, and Grey Room. In 2008, Gilligan released Crisis in the Credit System, a four-part fictional mini-drama made specifically for viewing on the Internet. Her most recent serial video works, Popular Unrest and Self-Capital, look at the current state of politics in the midst of capital’s ongoing crisis.

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