A Utopia for Money
A visit to the secretive art warehouse at the Singapore airport
I have visited money’s utopia: it is not only a utopia for those with money, but a utopia for money itself.
Sequestered in the winding roads of an industrial park, next to the airport tarmac of one of Asia’s busiest airports, a mere block away from the garrison of the border police, the Singapore Freeport stands isolated from its neighbors behind layers of razor wire. It is a purpose-built, highly securitized luxury warehouse within which the ultra-rich encrypt their art.
With an invitation, you might speak through an intercom to guards and be buzzed through several state-of-the-art security gates before you enter the compound itself and take in the black and red facility. Then you will pass through a battery of checkpoints more rigorous than in any airport. You will hand your passport through a two-way drawer to an invisible a guard in an office on the other side of one-way glass. Courteous staff will instruct you to empty your pockets into a small box and place that, along with your bags, in an x-ray machine while your body proceeds through the L3 full-body scanner.
Security is only the secondary objective of all of this infrastructure, the candid warden explained to me as he led me into the Freeport’s massive atrium, enmeshed in a huge specially commissioned Ron Arad sculpture (ominously titled La Cage Sans Frontières) and surrounded by identical security doors to private viewing suites. The designers and architects worked as closely as possible with the world’s leading art insurance firms to guarantee that the building, mere meters from the tarmac of one of the busiest airports in Asia, offers an almost zero-risk environment. But the primary reason for the extreme vetting of visitors, my guide confides, is the same reason for the “starchitecture” and massive atrium sculpture: theatre. It is not only to impress upon wealthy clients that their treasures are safe, but that they themselves are worthy and estimable subjects for owning objects worthy of such concern.
An impossible-to-ascertain number of cultural treasures lie within. “We don’t know and we don’t want to know what’s in the vaults,” the warden tells me. The Freeport’s job, he explains, is to offer its clients an artificial, eternal environment (of variable dimensions, depending on need) that will forever be 20 degrees centigrade and 55% relative humidity (unless otherwise requested). What those clients choose to encrypt in the Freeport is their private business: while technically, objects stored in the luxury warehouse exist on Singaporean soil, their owners pay no tax until they enter Singapore proper — it is as if they are still sitting on the tarmac, to which the Freeport has special access rights directly from its back gates. Backup generators stand ready in the unlikely event of a power disruption;, and a waterless fire-suppression system will suck out the oxygen from a room and replace it with nitrogen to ensure no damage comes to the hoard within.
The chain of accountability is nebulous, to say the least. La Freeport, the company that built and operates the facility, leases space to clients like Christie’s and various other firms specializing in the delicate and opaque world of fine art sales, storage and handling. A museum, a collector, or a gallery (or a shell company set up by any of these entities) might hire these companies to house a work of art. While an investor might rent their own vault, it is more likely that they will subcontract the rental to a firm specializing in keeping an object safe, asking few, if any, questions. What is inside the crypt is anyone’s guess. The records of ownership, like the owners themselves, could be anywhere in the world. What is certain is that the Freeport exists in Singapore to take advantage of the quasi-authoritarian capitalist city-state’s unique location: notoriously strict laws, a militarized society, a population of highly-educated native English speakers, a transparent system of property law in accordance with international trade treaties, and, most importantly, proximity to booming Chinese art markets.
A Utopia of Money…?
Freeports like Singapore’s are one node in a secret archipelago of utopian spaces that exist within late capitalism’s growing atmosphere of accelerating and seemingly limitless inequality. While the gap between the world’s rich and poor is growing in nearly every jurisdiction, also growing are the number of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), many from the BRIC nations and the Global South, who are eager to use their wealth, most of it derived from (or magnified by, or laundered in) financial speculation, to build a geographically distributed private utopia inaccessible to the rabble. The Freeport is one such fragment of a global utopia for the ultra-rich which might also include exclusive resorts, yachts, luxury properties in global metropoles, boutique tourist experiences, space tourism and even deluxe disaster shelters.
At stake here is the power of extreme money to re-craft the world, to create a network of utopian “goodplaces/noplaces” hidden in plain sight. This tendency is a process of de- and re-territorialization. The increasingly commodified, monetized and financialized world, one that is frustratingly rigid and inescapable to most of us, fluid and protean for capital and for capitalists. If, under capitalism, money is the power to command the labor of others, then utopian spaces like freeports represent the apogee of capital’s ability to deracinate the world’s wealth. The living and dead cooperative potential of human and non-human actors–in the form of exploitable energies and solidified commodities — is concentrated into processes and architectures for the exclusive enjoyment of the few. If cooperation and politics are, in some sense, the products of the human capacity for dialogue and discourse, the extreme solidification of financialized wealth represent an almost impossible moment of disconnection, where literally and figuratively, the bearer exits the human condition and enters a new world of homo monetaris, outside of politics.
To understand money’s utopianism, we need to reach back to the origin of the concept of “utopia.” Many read Thomas More’s Utopia as holding the kernel of radical emancipation, as the first voyage of the modern imagination to see how society could be organized otherwise. True enough. But we should also recall that More’s utopia was an authoritarian patriarchy and a settler-colony, replete with the logic of violent racialized usurpation. Indeed, Utopia takes the form of the opinions and testimony of a European explorer of the “New World,” and was written by a senior English jurist as that nation mulled over how to compete with its rival, Spain, while the latter was engorging its coffers by enslaving Indigenous people in what is now Latin America, and working them to mass death to rip untold mineral wealth out of the earth. Thomas More, a social conservative who would (fatefully) go on to become Chancellor to Henry VIII, is clearly deeply concerned in Utopia with the corrosive influence of money on society and its capacity to disrupt what he thought of as a flawed but essentially legitimate feudal order.
While perhaps written ironically, or as a playful thought experiment, More’s Utopia presents a world where an enlightened ruler, Utopos, has seized a strategic piece of land, presumably cleansed it of its indigenous population, and set down the laws for the patriarchs of city-states to essentially govern themselves without money. Yet Utopos’s original act of violence needs to be reckoned with, as does his law (foreshadowing Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, which would become key to the philosophical legitimation of colonialism), which enables his Utopian subjects to seize the land of their “barbarian” neighbors if they deem it underutilized. At issue here is the way the logic of European utopianism is always tied up with the colonial imagination, one of supplanting others, of arriving on far shores, finding a territory where the original people or laws or network of relationality can be ignored and subjugated, and creating there a sort of perfect world.
So while More might well be horrified by the excesses of today’s HNWIs, which exceed even the debauched luxuries of the Tudor court, in reality the exclusive, decentralized world the HNWIs are creating for themselves derives from this colonial-utopian logic. Whereas the original utopians might have had to steal an island, today’s utopians settle and colonize not only private islands but all manner of social institutions and spaces, creating an archipelago of miniaturized utopias like freeports. These are highly securitized zones of play that, on the one hand, depend on the material and immaterial infrastructures provided by the rest of humanity (and the “resources” of the natural world, the labour of humans, the city and the state) but that, on the other, supplant and expropriate while having absolutely no responsibility to that world, no compulsion to even interact with it. A billionaire might travel from his penthouse in London to the airport via helicopter, arrive in Singapore on his private jet, walk off the tarmac into the Freeport to survey his riches, then depart for a luxury resort and never have to encounter any disruption to his stratospheric utopia.
I do not wish what I am writing here to be mistaken here for a moral critique — the system as a whole is amoral enough, regardless of the demonic angelic behavior of its functionaries and beneficiaries. I am interested in the way financialization, by which I mean a set of transformations in capitalism since the 1970s (which we could also periodize with terms like “neoliberalism” or “the real subsumption of labor to capital”) should give us pause to rethink the politics of utopia and what we might call actually-existing utopianism today. The utopian world constructed by and for HNWIs is the manifestation of capitalist money in its financialized, utopian form. This is a form that, empowered by neoliberalism and austerity, demands and approaches a horizon of perfect liquidity, the capacity to commodify, monetize or financialize nearly any life process, enabling money’s disciplinary power to reach expansively across the globe and intensively into each and every space.
…Or Money’s Utopia?
Underneath the vanity and villainy of the beneficiaries and agents of financialization, there are deeper structural questions to be asked. Can we approach the Freeport as an example, not only of the sorts of utopia that extreme money can buy, but also of money’s own utopia? By this I mean the utopian horizon immanent to money itself, one of near-complete liquefaction, where the wealth of the world, even in its most unlikely or unruly forms (like art), is translated into monetized or speculative form. To do so would risk the cardinal Marxist sin of anthropomorphizing capital; but such metaphors can also be generative. Here utopianism does not figure so much as a desire but as a parabolic limit whose existence is integral to the system as a whole, the analysis of which might illuminate some new contours of that system.
We might begin by noting that the Freeport represents a certain extreme cultural politics, or cultural economics, of privacy and the notion of the private. Even more than security, the chief commodity the Freeport offers is privacy, which includes discretion and silence. As authors including Karl Polanyi, Michael Perelman and Nancy Fraser have all illustrated, the key to the legal architecture and moral legitimation of capitalist development has been the notion of private property and the corollary concept of the private sphere. Privacy, as a concept, is intimately tied to the reorganization of social and urban space that came with bourgeois revolutions and the evolution of possessive individualism, a process intimately tied to the spread of settler-colonialism. The separation of the social sphere into a set of private spaces mirrors and mutually reinforces the legal power of private property, the concept that a man’s economic activity (and we shall maintain the gendered pronoun to make clear what the rich, white, male architects and proponents of this apparatus intended) is the direct extension of his personal liberty and sovereignty. Like a nation-state, the private man may do as he likes with his property and in his domain, with catastrophic effects for women, children, servants, apprentices and (especially) enslaved people, all considered legal property at one time.
These notions of privacy and private property have been central and largely unalterable kernels of capitalist and imperialist expansion since their origins. Privacy and private property are indeed considered so virtuous that they need to be propounded globally, at the point of a bayonet if need be (or – what is in some ways, worse — with philanthropy). In many jurisdictions, missionaries and merchants, those shock troops of settler-colonialism, expressed their horror with, and early on sought to eliminate, indigenous forms of collective care for the land and the alleged immodesty of a life lived in common, with genocidal warfare against indigenous life. Meanwhile, the expansion of colonialism and imperialism depended on granting (certain) European men private property rights to the land, and privacy from state interference, while indigenous and non-European “infractions” on private property rights (such as the Chinese seizure of European stores of opium (whose trade was the raison d’être for modern Singapore’s establishment by the East India Company) served as pretexts for military intervention. More generally, the “enclosure” of the commons (literally, those European lands peasants had used for sustenance and, figuratively, all those common “resources” like forests, rivers, urban space), which was the primal scene of capitalism, was ultimately the imposition and defense of private property rights for social elites.
The alignment of privacy and private property, in some sense, is the kernel of a weaponized utopianism that creates securitized zones or structures of exclusivity, zones or structures that supplant, exploit and, ultimately, render the worlds around them dystopias. In the Freeport, the utopian logic of private property is taken to extremes. Privacy and private property align in a custom-designed space. Here, art exists not to be seen but precisely to be unseen and un-seeable, to be publicly invisible as a testament to money’s power. The problem is not only that HNWIs get to exclusively possess and sequester some of the world’s most resplendent cultural treasures; that’s old news. The problem is the way the Freeport instantiates, represents and helps reproduce an archipelago of weaponized utopias germane to financialized capitalism. The unleashing and ascendency of capitalist money to the universal arbiter of life and death both enables and depends on the generation of spaces like these.
Encrypting Money, Encrypting Art
In this way, the Freeport has important lessons for us about the production and circulation of value under financialization. The psychic value of art objects in the Freeport, in some sense, depends on their encryption within the vault. To the extent that these treasures are not merely objects of cultural value but also vehicles for prestige (or in Bourdieu’s terms, distinction) and for speculative profit (bought as an investment), their occultation in the hoard helps guarantee that value. The symbolic value of art ownership for the discerning collector is no longer found solely in ostentatious display (hanging the work in the home) or equally ostentatious largesse (donating or having the work hung in a gallery); it is derived in part from the work being occulted. The discerning, blue-chip collector is one who is not necessarily seen as the buyer at the auction, but simply rumored to be the money behind the bid; they are not the publicity-seeking art world insider, but the éminence grise, the ultra-VIP whose presence is merely felt, the Leviathan whose existence can only be reckoned by the market currents left in his wake. The black box of the Freeport becomes a space of open secrecy. The encryption of art within it amplifies the forms of distinction germane to a contemporary ruling class, who exist in their own archipelago of conspicuous private utopias.
One should not, of course, discount the very real monetary benefits of sequestering art in a place like the Freeport. The Panama Papers and other recent leaks have revealed something that has been acknowledged by sanguine art market insiders: art, especially conventional contemporary art, is an excellent vehicle for tax evasion, money laundering and various other dark arts of finance. The notorious secrecy of the art industry, the plasticity of the valuation of art objects, and the uncertainty of future returns on art investments: all conspire to make art itself a crypt for money: that is to say, a vault in which capital can be secreted and also a code that signifies money in a kind of private language, only accessible to those who share the keys.
The chagrin we might feel at the theft of “great art” from the public sphere should be secondary to our fury at the form of money’s utopia that the Freeport represents. It’s not only one where HNWIs create for themselves exclusive zones of play and safety while, for the rest of us, the world of work and precarity take on nightmarish proportions. It is also that the Freeport stands as a monument to the way anything in this world can be commodified, monetized and financialized. While we should avoid a misplaced nostalgia for art’s alleged autonomy from money, we should see art’s transformation into a purely speculative asset as an index to the magnitude of capitalist power. Rightly or wrongly, we have learned to invest our hopes for living labor, for our collective capacities to cooperate autonomously, in the much-ballyhooed freedom of art, its capacity to escape money’s capture. Capital’s capacity to encrypt art in the tomb of the Freeport has grave implications.
In his foreword to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s volume on Freud, The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, Derrida deconstructs the concept of the “crypt,” noting that it represents an architecture within which something can be stored in a liminal state, both dead and alive. But the process of encryption encrypts the encrypter as well. The subject of Abraham and Torok’s investigation is Freud’s case of the Wolf Man, whose suffering and pathological behavior allegedly derived from childhood family traumas. The Wolf Man, according to Abraham and Torok, had encrypted within his unconscious the idolized image of father and sister, and had built his subjectivity around it. Those figures were dead, and yet also alive in a specialized, sealed architecture in the interior of his subconscious. Due to that encryption, he exhibited pathological behavior, including an avoidance of certain words or phrases, and an ingenuity for subtle linguistic substitutions and evasions. The role of analyst, then, is a work of decryption, of cracking the code of the analysand’s speech. Otherwise, he remains caught in the crypt he himself has created. In Derrida’s more expansive reading, a crypt is a more general structure or archetype, a place where we store what we want to keep alive and dead at the same time, and which consequently encrypts us.
This is perhaps the hidden meaning of the curious fact that, at the Freeport, as I discovered, each individual art-crypt can only be opened by two digital codes entered at once, one known only to the wardens, the other known only to the client. But more concerning for our investigation here is the way that the Freeport allows money and art to encrypt one another. Secreted away in an eternal, risk-free stasis, dead and yet alive, art becomes a crypt for money: a pure asset, a distillation of the logic of private property itself, a hermetic vehicle for speculation. Artworks can be exchanged millions of times over in faraway locations without ever moving an inch from their hyper-securitized vault — simply the deed to ownership changes “hands.”
In this sense, as an architecture the Freeport is akin to its less well-appointed brethren, the world of logistics warehouses that hold assets or commodities, including a sizable percentage of the world’s cereals, metals and chemicals, whose ownership is manipulated on speculative markets elsewhere. This is part of the infrastructure of money’s utopia, reminiscent of the replete storehouses of the prosperous and efficient patriarchal colony dreamed of by Thomas More. The objects within these crypts are both alive and dead: alive in the sense that they continue to act in the utopian financialized world as speculative assets and objects of distinction; dead in the sense that they have ultimately been removed or semi-removed from circulation in the dystopian world most of us are forced to live in and to reproduce.
If, in the Freeport, money encrypts art, rendering it dead (as a merely liquid commodity), locked in a tomb never to be seen, and yet also alive (still functioning as that special thing, that anti-commodity, art), the reverse is also true: art encrypts money. Conventionally, art is a notoriously illiquid asset: it is hard to ensure there will be a ready buyer on-hand – tastes are idiosyncratic — and that this buyer will pay the expected price. It’s also relatively hard and risky to transport art, and doing so can often run afoul of state regulations, especially given how nation-states have invested in artworks (literally and symbolically) as a vehicle of national cultural heritage, in their attempt to suture the ever-leaky hyphen between nation (cultural and social entity) and state (legal and economic entity). In the past decades, with the mid-2000s boom in the art market and the arrival on the scene of a growing class of international HNWIs eager to get in on the game without many connections or experience, the art market has innovated a variety of market mechanisms to increase fine art’s liquidity. While the shadowy world of private galleries, auction houses and elite, blue-chip collectors still rule the roost, events such as carnivalesque art fairs have emerged to make art purchasing easier for rich newcomers and outsiders. New digital platforms for selling, evaluating, tracking and predicting the future prices of art have been developed, and the reliability of art market indexes like the Mei-Moses are growing. The tentative and somewhat economically dubious rise of art investment funds (essentially, hedge funds of rich investors who hire specialists and buy art for purely speculative purposes) is both a means and an ends for the increasing liquidity of art. Freeports like the one in Singapore are a vital part of this financial ecosystem, which is even gaining nods of approval from major investment banks and financial advisors to the ultra-rich.
A Secret Museum for Communized Capitalism
The trope of a utopian dream being implemented as a totalitarian nightmare is a familiar one, notably from the anti-communist propaganda that has defined the post-war Western ideological scene. What is often ignored is that the same capitalist system that was generating this propaganda was itself germinating a utopian totalitarianism, namely that of money itself, which, under neoliberal financialization, overshadows and influences daily life and political ideology in ways that exceed the most fevered dreams of any dictator. We are, in fact, at a point some authors have identified as the “communism of capital,” which implies a number of overlapping trends.
First, there is the way the financial apparatus, even though it is composed of multiple competing firms, has the overall structure of a kind of Central Committee (complete with nasty rivalries) that brutally orchestrates the capitalist “planned economy.” For all their isolation and insulation, the individual actions of this class lead to systemic effects: the sum of a million competitive acts of risk management produce unforeseen and often catastrophic systemic risks. This leads us to a second aspect of the communism of capital: that the state itself has been conscripted to propping up the financial order — in the form of bailouts, sure, but also more generally in terms of providing a lucrative legal infrastructure. Whereas real communism envisions the nationalization of the banks as a vehicle for the rational control of the economy in human interests, the communism of capital enacts a sort of bankification of the nation-state, transforming it into a vehicle for the irrational acceleration of capitalist accumulation.
A third aspect of the communism of capital is the capitalist capture of the social and the communal. Whereas real communism is oriented towards a horizon where exploited labor as such (as distinct from “work”) is abolished in the name of the flourishing of autonomous human bonds and social thriving, under the communism of capital both human bonds and social life are organized and exploited to produce value. The vast and rapid expansion of the service and communications-technology sectors under the order of communicative capitalism or biopolitical production indicate that the ether of social life has become a key site of accumulation. Indeed, we are each increasingly made responsible for instrumentalizing, monetizing, or financializing more and more aspects of our life. Privatization and commodification of social services (like health, housing, care and education) makes each of us individually responsible for borrowing or speculating on basic necessities. With the so-called “sharing economy,” we are each instructed to become micro entrepreneurs, discovering ways to monetize any fragment of time or any asset in the name of our own survival. Whereas real communism envisaged the reintegration of the economy into society, the communism of capital enfolds society into the market.
The Freeport is one architecture of this communism of capital, a sort of palace of encrypted culture. Here, the world’s treasures come together under one roof in ways that exceed the dreams even of modern political regimes, whether Napoleon’s Louvre of pillaged European treasures or Hitler’s fantasies of a master museum for the master race at the heart of Germania (the utopian city that was to replace racially-contaminated Berlin). The Freeport is a museum of the utopianism of money: its curator is the market itself, which orchestrates all of the acquisitioning, accessioning and de-accessioning, through hundreds or thousands of individual acts of speculative calculation, on the part of atomized collectors or their agents. That no one (even the wardens) ever will see the whole collection — indeed, they do not even know what lies in the crypt — completes this structure: it is a secret museum dedicated to money’s glory and the circuits of cultural value it foments. It is an institution for the communism of capital: a sort of collectivist project for the glory of an abstract system based on individual accumulation.
Most of us will never set foot in the Freeport or visit any of money’s utopian spaces except as servants. We are trapped in the peripheral dystopia of risk and economic violence that is its necessary precondition and byproduct, struggling to avoid the worst of the catastrophes money’s utopia unleashes, while producing the wealth on which it depends.