Digital/Debt/Empire EssaysFeatureImaginal Politics

The Violence of Abstraction

From debt to race and back again

‘There’s going to be a cleansing’

Around the time of the 2007-8 crisis, I was living in the vicinity of London’s Canary Wharf, home to the headquarters of a large portion of the UK capital’s financial industries. On a crowded morning bus, many of whose passengers evidently belonged to the lowly infantry of high capital, I remember a woman clutching a copy of a tabloid with some sensational headline about the ongoing debacle and commenting to everyone and no one in particular: ‘There’s going to be a cleansing’ (sudden snowfalls and economic crashes are among the few things breaking the norm of silence in English commuting).

I mention this weird vignette, because I associate it with my intellectual preoccupation around that time, when I was exploring the myriad contemporary meanings of a dictum encountered in Marx’s Grundrisse: ‘individuals are now ruled by abstractions whereas earlier they had depended on one another’. Societies that were bound together by explicit personal and institutional bonds are now governed by the seemingly impersonal forces of money, debt, profit, value, and so on.

In the years following this mildly surrealist crisis commute, the idea of the rule of abstraction over the quotidian fabric of our lives made itself insistently, bewilderingly, nauseatingly present. Conversations in Italy would often alight on ‘lo spread’ – the gap between Italy’s 10-year bond yields and Germany’s, a key indicator of the country’s exposure to risk, and of its waning sovereignty. Obscure devices of a highly digitalized finance – Collateralised Debt Obligations, Special Purpose Vehicles, Credit Default Swaps, etc. – were suddenly revealed to affect the lives of millions. High-frequency trading linked the immaterial power of algorithms to the most physical of displacements, digging fibre-optic cables through mountains to gain the advantage of a few nanoseconds or ‘gaming the plumbing’ in myriad other ways. Not to mention the inroads into our households, psyches and intimacy that have long been made by interest rates, currency valuations or inflation curves. Capitalism is indeed ‘the religion of everyday life’ (Marx, again).

While some inspiring, if episodic efforts have been made to address the shaping force of the real abstractions of commodity exchange and capitalism on our speculative vocabularies, too little attention has been given to the ‘practices of abstraction’, including — and especially — those that mobilize race, in shaping philosophy and critical theory. If we wish to explore the multiple relations constituting contemporary capitalism and its conflicts, between debt/digital/empire, it is thus not just necessary to keep the nexus of violence and abstraction in one’s sights, but also to avoid any one-dimensional rejection of abstraction itself. As Miranda Joseph has acutely argued, with specific reference to debt, abstraction is as an inescapable if conflicted feature of any form of sociality. The question is not whether we need abstraction, but which abstractions we can live with, and how we can prevent them from being turned into devices of domination and dispossession.

From philosophical to financial abstraction (or vice versa)

By way of personal clarification as much as anything else, I turned to my own discipline, philosophy. This meant reading its history and its texts against the grain. After all, ever since the ascent from Plato’s Cave, philosophy could be thought of as, if not as the rule, then at least as the primacy of the abstract over the concrete. But bond spreads, CDOs and interest rates are not sublime Forms or Ideas. The illumination they provide is thoroughly profane, both mathematically recondite and terrifyingly banal.

I found the mediation – or perhaps the short-circuit – between these two registers of abstraction, at the edges of the Marxist tradition, in the little-known writings of a fringe figure in the orbit of the Frankfurt School, Alfred Sohn-Rethel. While many critical social thinkers have sought to elucidate the way modernity is marked by the power of abstraction, Sohn-Rethel’s thinking is especially useful and suggestive for the way it brings the seemingly mundane fact of monetary exchange to the very heart of philosophy – in the process making patent the link between the theoretical and financial meanings of the term speculation. Beginning in the late 1920s and finally culminating in a book called Intellectual and Manual Labour published in the 1970s, Sohn-Rethel developed the idea of ‘real abstraction’, to suggest that the emergence of philosophical abstractions (in Ancient Greek philosophy) was conditioned by relations of monetization and marketization in the agora meant that individuals were engaged in abstract social practices ‘before’ they had abstract ideas, and that the latter were shaped by the former. In other words, the very act of purchase and sale – which operates as if time and space don’t matter and value is an abstract, immaterial and homogeneous substance – was, along with its materialization in coinage, the unthought basis of philosophy itself, at its most metaphysical and seemingly ethereal.

Rather than some exceptional peak of cognition – that ‘Greek miracle’ which so many conservatives and supremacists think they ‘own’ – the priority of the abstraction over the concrete was to be sought in what we might call the economic unconscious. Sohn-Rethel’s is a disputable and disputed thesis, but it has the clarifying, scandalous virtue of setting the relation between philosophy and political economy on a very different footing. It tells us that, rather than a matter of ascending from our everyday empirical surroundings to sublime ideas, abstraction may be a matter of the invisible patterns and mechanisms of valuation that provide our quotidian existence with much of its structure (as many have already pointed out, this is perhaps why the synthesis of helpless bodies and digital enslavement in the Matrix proves such a powerfully disturbing emblem of the Real of contemporary capitalism, and an alternative to the elevating narrative of the Platonic Cave).

The capitalist violence of debt

Now, it is interesting to note that many thinkers, past and present, have homed in on debt to question the idea that equal exchange is at the heart of economic life, as well as of philosophy and abstraction. Against Platonic and Christian idealisms, Nietzsche suggested that before prior to any society or morality, any cohesion or responsibility, was not just exchange or calculation, but the cruel disciplining of human beings into subjects of debt; an archaic ‘odor of blood and torture’ haunts Kant’s influential moral philosophy as much as it does any bank contract or rental agreement.

Following a Nietzschean inspiration, Michel Foucault in the early 1970s tried to counter those who sought the origins of money and philosophy in exchange, and proposed that it was in the debt struggles between rich and poor that monetization finds its uniquely political origins. More recently, Michel Aglietta has reminded us that the minting of money allowed the state to advance the rule of abstraction and perform sovereignty over a ‘social debt’, while Devin Singh has excavated the late Roman Empire’s monetary theology to reveal some of the neglected sources for our moral and economic grammar, most fascinatingly perhaps in the figure of God as a predatory lender.

A focus on debt seems to suggest a move from the violence of abstraction – that critical concern of the Marxian critique of political economy, and especially of its account of exploitation qua extraction of surplus value from laboring bodies – to the violence of abstraction – an attention to debt as the paradigmatic device linking economic subjection, to individual subjectivity, and these in turn to physical subjugation. As I tried to explore in a critical engagement with Maurizio Lazzarato’s important intervention into the debate, The Making of the Indebted Man, this nexus of debt, violence and politics is crucial to an understanding of the present; but we miss the specificity of capitalist violence if we give too short a thrift to the importance of mechanisms of equivalence and homogenization mediated by money (or of the value-form and abstract labour, to remain with Marx’s terminology) in our everyday life. To be ruled by abstractions is also to have extreme, breath-taking inequality, asymmetry and violence channelled through economic and legal forms that ‘really appear’ to be founded on equality.

Race, real-estate and real abstraction

In an article co-authored with Brenna Bhandar, we tried to bring together the debates on real abstraction, the specificity of propertization as an abstractive device, and the ways in which race (both in its ‘imperial’ histories and its contemporary reproductions) is a critical site for the violence of abstraction. We tried to develop a theoretical vocabulary adequate to think through, for instance, the operations of ‘race’ in the subprime mortgage crisis (something whose digital dimensions, which we did not consider, has been the object of illuminating research). Inspired especially by Stuart Hall’s efforts to stretch Marxism (including the lessons of Gramsci andAlthusser) in order to think racial regimes, we argued that it is necessary to explore the articulation between different registers and practices of abstraction, which cannot be reduced to one common form.

Abstraction can take the guise of events and processes of social dissolution and uprooting such as the ones that Marxists have discussed under the headings of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ or ‘accumulation by dispossession’; but it is also at work in quotidian ‘unconscious’ practices, above all the most banal (and now digitally automated) acts of monetary exchange. Abstraction may be understood as the high-level ‘logic’ at work in capitalism at its most generic; but also defines multiple and highly-specialized social practices in the domains of science, law or politics that involve a separation from concreteness and intensely formalized operations. To approach the problem of the creation, reproduction and use of racial difference for the purposes of dispossession and exploitation, in connection to financialized abstraction and property law, requires such a theoretical work of articulation.

For the latter to be possible, we also need to be sensitive to the way in which race itself operates as an abstraction. We are guided here by Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as ‘a practice of abstraction, a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organize relations within and between the planet’s sovereign political territories’ – a definition that can be transposed into the domain of computational capital, once we reflect on how social difference can be capitalized and technologized by way of algorithms, especially through forms of ‘pattern discrimination’. Or how, to quote Jonathan Beller, ‘global communication and information processing utilizes planetary dispossession as its substrate’.

Decolonizing philosophy and the abolition of debt

In my own field of research, philosophy, it is the latter dynamic, of racial abstraction, which remains largely unaddressed. As I’ve tried to explore in terms of modern European philosophy’s ‘invention’ of the racialized figure of the ‘savage’, the call to ‘decolonize’ philosophy should not just be envisaged as a critique of philosophy as the legitimating ideology of racial capitalism or empire, or as the search for instance of philosophical dissent against colonial violence, or as the expansion of the domain of philosophy beyond its white and Eurocentric canon.

While all of these are vital pursuits, I think finding the specific historical ‘articulations’ of philosophy as a theoretical practice with the practices of abstraction of which Gilmore speaks is crucial. In manners analogous and interlocking with the brutalizing ‘displacement of difference into hierarchies’, process of indebtedness, digital control and imperial dispossession all mobilize their own kinds of ‘real abstractions’, while, with various degrees of manifest violence, writing or inscribing these abstractions on bodies.

Among the pressing tasks of critical theory – across political economy, philosophy, aesthetics and the sciences of the unconscious – is both to trace and to dismantle those abstractions that confiscate and curtail collective capacities for self-emancipation. Without forgetting (another lesson of philosophical genealogy) that so much of our vocabulary of liberation – not least the fraught if indispensable notions of redemption or emancipation or even jubilee – are steeped in the economic theology and ‘guilt history’ of debt, the one in which Christ had ‘cancelled out the certificate of debt (cheirographon)’ issued to humanity as a whole.

Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include: The Theatre of Production: Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze (2006), Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (2010), and (with Jeff Kinkle) Cartographies of the Absolute (2015). He edited The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics with Lorenzo Chiesa, and has translated several works by Alain Badiou, as well as Antonio Negri, Furio Jesi and Franco Fortini. He is currently working on two book projects, the first on tragedy as a political form, the second on philosophy, capitalism and ‘real abstraction’. He has sat on the editorial board Historical Materialism since 2004, and is series editor of The Italian List for Seagull Books.

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Alberto Toscano

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