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Biological foundations of capital imaginaries

Capitalism has been the subject of too many conflicting definitions for any of the claims that follow to have any purchase on truth — understood as an adequation to the real. Beneath the numerous disagreements, however, a common substratum can be gleaned between the liberal Smithian, and the classical Marxist and Weberian positions: capitalism is a system geared at fostering accumulation for its own sake. The question of why humans accumulate — it follows — became the central yet indirect focus of a great deal of critical social theory, upon which hinges our collective capacities to participate or withdraw from such a political machine. In this essay, I will focus on the history of conceptions of money as a living thing. I start by looking at the biological substratum of classical political economic theories of accumulation, before moving to a historical consideration of the shift away from these naturally limited conceptions of capital. In sketching this draft of this “birth of biofinance”, it is the blurring of capital and life, of the boundaries between biology and finance that will emerge as the central conundrum in our re-imagination of capitalism.

Neither Marx nor Weber really believed humans would want to accumulate. In both cases, they were coerced into such practices by the fear of death — either material (for Marx) or spiritual (for Weber). For the former, competition united both bourgeoisie and proletariat into a rat race for the survival of the fittest, a de-solidarization of society through the engine of competitive production. For the latter, the fear of perpetual damnation demanded signs of abatement, which were to be found in a protestant ethic preaching material wealth as God’s only clue to salvation. Both traditions painted accumulation as a slightly unnatural perversion of the human imagination, by fear. This negative conception of “power” writ large, and of accumulation as one of its main effects, harkens back to a Hobbesian world of scarcity where fear of the future gives birth to a need for security, to which accumulation remedies.

In contrast, Adam Smith saw human nature as more positively amenable to accumulation. In his view, there was no need to resort to something so drastic as the “needle of hunger” or Lutheran fatalism to get humans to desire endlessly more. Imagination and fancy were more than sufficient:

The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace…It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniences which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. (Smith 1778:210-1)

Smith attributes to the faculty of imagination alone the power to motivate humans to work beyond ‘reasonable’ bounds, devoting entire lives to chimeras of ephemeral beauty. And lest we suspected Smith of invoking the ‘envy’ of the masses towards the wealth of their superiors, he quickly makes a distinction: this poor man’s son does “not even imagine that they [the rich] are really happier than other people: but he imagines that they possess more means of happiness. And it is the ingenious and artful adjustment of those means to the end for which they were intended, that is the principal source of his admiration” (Smith 1788:213). In other words, it is the almost Kantian “disinterested interest”, the beauty afforded to “order, the regular and harmonious movement of the system, the machine or economy by means of which it is produced”, and the ingenuity of the mirage that sparks the imagination into superhuman exertion. Wealth as an end in itself, as a perfect system, holds some value in the imagination.

Although Smith adopts an admonitory tone regarding the seductions of imagination, and the vanity of ambition not being worth its weight in anxiety and toil, he nonetheless grants a central place to the imaginal faculty in the great march of progress. “And it is well that nature imposes upon us in this manner. It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life” (Smith 1788:215). His unlikely optimism towards imagination and its role in human accumulation finds its roots in a biological faith, which today strikes us as alien:

It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of (Smith 1788:215; emphasis added)

The stomach — the semi-permeable membrane of biological destiny — provides a providential counterweight to the eyes — the insatiable engines of desire and imagination. Smith famously concludes that despite their “natural selfishness and rapacity”, the rich “are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants…” (Ibid.). In this parable, the eye of the imagination drives mankind to deny the real and work beyond it, towards the impossible, while their stomach nullifies the use-value of their hard-earned possessions, opening them up to redistribution. The garden of earthly delights lay in the imagination rather than in the bounded physical act of consumption. Within this fortunate arrangement — limitless greed and limited physical capacity for enjoyment — equality or social justice became the superfluous and suboptimal tenets of a faithless creed. The entire edifice of Smith’s elegy to the marvel of capitalism relied, on its last leg, upon this providential biological constraint to pleasure, consumption and accumulation.

That accumulation might have been imagined in relation to biology and its natural limits would have surprised no one until the 19th century. Open the book of Job, and you will see God and his angels counting the man’s wealth in term of cattle and children (and his despair proportional to these losses). “There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He possessed 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys, and very many servants, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east” (Job:3). Children, cattle, slaves, and grain: accumulation had been based upon the household, and although prodigiously rich individuals had existed throughout antiquity and the medieval period, their wealth had been indistinguishable from a web of biological and social relations — despite some very limited attempts at conspicuous consumption (Polanyi 1944).

Heads of cattle is precisely, in fact, what capital referred to: Caput (capitis) literally means head, and was an expression originally counting the heads of cattle owned as a metonymy for a man’s wealth. Capitalism hints back, in its very definition, to this biological substratum predating the mode of production. It is worth noting that this form of accumulation was indeed natural, in the sense of unintentional: living a conventional life entailed marriage, intercourse and progeny, which in turn meant exponential growth of human and social networks of care and support. At the same time, this form of ‘natural’ accumulation was also bound by biological limits: there was a limit to how much land could be cultivated and supervised, how many children could be had, how many heads of cattle and slaves could be fed. One could argue that numerous children would help in the management of the properties and the cattle, avoiding losses to thieves, and pilfering or otherwise reluctant laborers and slaves. Still, at the very least, biology imposed upon this type of accumulation one very serious constraint: reproductive time. Whether land, or cattle, or slaves, or wives, or children: under prosperous conditions all multiplied exponentially over time, yet they were also subject to specific rhythms. Cycles of birth could not be accelerated or slowed down; but illnesses and early deaths could certainly disrupt these reproductive proliferations. Thus, a man’s wealth could not exceed his allotted lifetime and could hardly be planned for.

Commerce and exchange, while they could accelerate the time and volume of trade, did very little to change that fact — until the advent of large-scale monopolistic markets. The great fortunes up to the modern period, for that reason, always emerged from death: in the form of local, colonial, or imperial wars, plundering and extraction; and in the form of slavery; and more often than not the two were interlinked. It literally took the stealing of another’s life to accumulate beyond the biological limitations of reproductive cycles. Hence, perhaps, Marx’s great interest in vampirism and all its attendant metaphors. Hence also the obsession during the great witch hunts — medieval or contemporary — with the magical stealing of reproductive ability in exchange for riches. Witches from the 11th century onwards would cast glamours on men, spells to steal their penises and replace it with an illusory and dysfunctional fake; they would also steal children’s life in the form of various animals, or men’s semen through the help of succubae. One of the most popular movie characters of Ghanean cinema, Diabolo, is infamous for drugging women he picks up in bars, bringing them home, and entering their vagina in the form of a snake. After the “reproductive” act, the woman starts giving birth to a long flow of bank notes either from the vagina and/or vomits them from the mouth, before finally dying, depleted. In many ways, witch crazes can be thought of as paranoid critiques of accumulation for its own sake, metaphorically linking such behavior to the death of a community and the disruption of its reproductive possibilities (Meyer 1995).


The suspicion of accumulation as a death cult culminated in the hatred of the creditor, the universally loathed Shylocks. To this category of the population who believed money was alive, existing accumulation would beget, in exchange for risks, exponentially larger accumulations over time. For that reason, a number of restraining social taboos had been put in place to prevent such speculatory and destructive exercises within the confines of the “social” realm — usury laws, the debtor’s prison, intra-communal hard-lending prohibitions. And for good reason: until the advent of European industry, most large loans had funded wars and overseas trading ventures, destructive and insecure investments akin to gambling. From that perspective, the whole of the liberal cannon can be re-read as a plea to those gamblers whom Smith called “prodigals and projectors” — an intricate system designed to coax capital flows towards rational and productive endeavors rather than the destructive crusades of old.

The founding fathers of liberal thought thus also sided with creditors in staging the emancipation of capital flows form the domains of war and commerce, and into the realms of the social and the industrial. In repealing usury laws and the moral shame associated with borrowing and lending, many of these liberal thinkers drew from the biological realm of reproduction. John Locke, who coined the great creditor maxim — “Whatsoever therefore hinders the Lending of Money Injures Trade” — was one of the first thinkers to see life in money, i.e. to draw from biological metaphors not to limit accumulation but precisely to justify it:

Money… is capable by its Interest to yield us such a yearly Income: and in this it has the Nature of Land, (the Income of one being called Rent, of the other Use) only with this difference, That the Land in its Soil being different, as some fertile, some barren; and the Products of it very various, both in their Sorts, goodness and vent, is not capable of any fixed estimate by its quantity: But Money, being constantly the same, and by its Interest giving the same sort of Product through the whole Country, is capable of having a fixed yearly Rate set upon it by the Magistrate; but Land is not. (Locke 1691)

In Locke’s thought, money and land were interchangeable conceptually, with one notable exception. While some land could be barren, money was always fertile, to a mechanical degree. And this made money very attractive as a reproductive life form, as it allowed the possibility of having a type of growth unhindered by regular biological limitations, and amenable to political regulation[1]. Most importantly, it was setting the precedent that money should be able to reproduce, just like land.

This type of bio-financial thinking traveled far and wide. Two centuries later, Marx would write, parodying the prevalent creditor ideology of the 19th century, that “it becomes a faculty of money to generate value and yield interest, just like it is a faculty of a pear tree to bear pears…The money is then pregnant” (Marx 1894). To Marx, treating money as a parthenogenetic entity — M-M’ — was the highest form of mystification of class relations within capitalist modes of production — “interest fetishism”. The hypocrisy of that belief “of the hoarding miser” struck Marx as unforgivable, precisely because it refused to see that money could not grow faster than the biological capacities of a population and the bodies that composed it. “By the identity of surplus-value with surplus-labor a qualitative limit is imposed upon the accumulation of capital. This is formed by the total working day, the prevailing development of the productive forces and of the population, which limit the number of the simultaneously exploitable working days. But if surplus value is conceived of in the meaningless form of interest, then the limit is merely quantitative and defies all fantasy” (Marx 1894; emphasis mine).

Spearheaded by Locke and his liberal progeny, the creditors’ attempt to grant life to money took more than three centuries to fully sink within collective capitalist imaginaries. An endless array of legal, institutional, financial, social and discursive means — falling far beyond the purview of this essay (but which I do explore in a forthcoming piece) — were deployed to blur the boundaries between the financial and the biological, the productive and the reproductive. Living money entailed the possibility of limitless accumulation, but more importantly it meant that having money was already a justification for obtaining more, intentionally or not. The collective obsession with GDP growth as the ultimate pursuit of life; the continued belief that the rich deserve further wealth accumulation despite odds rigged in their favor — in education, jobs, security, health, or legal status; even the famous maxim “time is money”, all stem from this imaginary biological life of money.

The very ultimate consequence, was to provide a new imaginal possibility for the drive towards accumulation. To the question why do we accumulate?, it was now possible to respond: because it is part of the nature of things. Money brings forth more money, and humans are but the shepherds of this natural phenomenon. Questioning the “accumulatory” drive was now just as specious as questioning libido and the spontaneous proliferation of life. It meant to place oneself on the ascetic, monastic side of renunciation and necrotic theory (think Jacques Ellul), rather than on the joyful side of vitality, abundance and action (think Richard Branson).

If money could now be imagined as a life force, the blurred boundaries between the financial and the biological also opened up the possibility of imagining life itself as a financial flow in need of statistical regulation. In transitioning from an imaginary where accumulation entailed an act of destruction of the social to an imaginary where resisting accumulation suggested forms of asocial sabotage, another aspect of human life needed to be modified, one which Marx had hinted at:

The life of the poor man and his talents and activity serve the rich man as a guarantee of the repayment of the money lent. That means, therefore, that all the social virtues of the poor man, the content of his vital activity, his existence itself, represent for the rich man the reimbursement of his capital with the customary interest. Hence the death of the poor man is the worst eventuality for the creditor . It is the death of his capital together with the interest…Within the credit relationship, it is not the case that money is transcended in man, but that man himself is turned into money, or money is incorporated in him. (Marx 1844)

As opposed to the greedy capitalist who happily grants his workers the “double freedom” to choose a profession and to starve, the creditor cares for the life of his borrower. The credit relationship therefore stank of slavery, but with an important difference. A sick slave is a simple sunken cost: more money should never be spent bringing them back to health than has been spent on the purchase of their life itself — meaning that economic rationality would dictate their death to cut losses. In the credit relationship, more sickness equates to piling debt, and eventually the possibility of accumulating not only the life and labor-power of the borrower, but of all their family, friends and neighbors [2]. For credit to be lent on a population-wide scale, it wasn’t only necessary to remove usury laws or the debtor’s prison. More important was the creation of a biological order where lives aligned with normal statistical curves of life expectancy. If a borrower died unexpectedly, it was the loss of capital and interest, of man literally incarnated as money. Within the creditor relationship therefore emerges the first possibility for power to wish to maximize and optimize the life of the less privileged party — in view of return maximization and risk minimization. From this perspective, the growth of a universal creditor state — rather than a bourgeois-capitalist state — can perhaps more accurately capture the process of government of biology and life Foucault has termed biopolitical and that I propose to subsume under a biofinancial order.

That it is a number of bankers and financiers of the 17th and 18 th, such as Colbert and Turgot that introduced the first public health programs in Europe, under the guise of savings on lost working days for the nation, points in that direction. That it was Necker and de Boullogne, another pair of bankers, who first brought mortality tables to bear on governmental techné, deserves a bit more of our attention. Antoine Deparcieux’s famous founding work of actuarial sciences (1746) was entitled Essays on the probabilities of the length of the human lifespan, from which is deduced the way of determining annuities — simple or collective — preceded by a short explanation on annuities, and accompanied by a great number of tables. It is fitting that these first mortality tables were commissioned by the Finance Ministry to help the kingdom raise more debt from the population through the annuity system — a life and death lottery whereby a lump sum is given to the government in exchange for a certificate entitling the owner to an annual payment with interest, and expiring with the death of the person in whose name it was granted.

Necker, using these tables, managed to raise such astronomical sums that he was considered to have saved Louis XVI’s reign. As it later emerged, the craze had been partially fuelled by what came to be known as the “30 Maidens of Geneva” scandal: large banks would purchase annuities on the lives of healthy and rich young maidens, rather than shorter-lived men, and would bundle these bio-financial products to minimize risk and resell them to investors for a profit. The banks would then spend a great amount of time, hygienic techniques and money in extending the maidens lives — as their financial returns depended on these young futures surpassing the average mortality curves predicted by Deparcieux and the Crown. Eventually, the speculative craze on these securitized products went so out of control that one of the most memorable financial crises in history ended up in the bankruptcy of the French state, followed by the 1789 revolution.

While Marx saw creditor ideology as an epiphenomenon, an illogical and primitive belief surviving the progressive march of capital and doomed to an unsightly death, the few stories I have told can help recast it as the core ideological tenet that has organized capital’s continued expansion. Thus, it might be of importance in our current attempts to reshape and divert capital progressions to revise our approach to credit, creditors and the imaginary edifices by which they have conferred a life onto capital. Instead of obsessing over masculine modes of production — the absent “C” in M-M’ — the critical task might just be to take a hard look at the modes of reproduction of capital, the ways in which capital has acquired biological, reproductive life over the course of its imaginal existence, and the ways in which to counter this fundamental aspect of its cult.

Marc Aziz Michael teaches sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at NYU. His current book project explores the disciplinary genealogy of financial institutions as tools of governmental practice and thought.

[1] Eventually Locke goes on to decide that the price of money fluctuates too much year to year, and that only human biology can determine the minimum value of any particular commodity.

[2] Although later bankruptcy laws will offer the possibility of defaulting at the cost of one’s “internal exile” from within the social.

Locke J. 1691. Some Considerations of the Consequencees of the Lowering of Interest and Raising the Value of Money. In a letter Sent to a Member of Parliament . London: Black Swan.

Marx K. 1844. Comments on James Mill,Éléments D’économie Politique. In Marx-Engels-GesamtausgabeBd.3. 1932. Berlin.

Marx K. 1894. (Eds: Engels and Untermann) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol.III. The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole . Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co.

Meyer B. 1995. ‘Delivered from the Powers of Darkness’ Confessions of Satanic Riches in Christian Ghana. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 65 (2):236-255

Polanyi K. 1944 [2001]. The Great Transformation: The political and economic origins of our times . Boston: Beacon Press.

Smith A. 1788 [2004]. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Cambrdige: Cambrdige University Press.

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