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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

the foolish exchange in the age of precarity

“… precarity is not a provisional, transient, resolvable juncture of social and productive relations. Precarity is the time that comes after modernity.”

I have often thought that the problem with many leftist theorists is that, in the wake of Adorno, it seems to be a competition for who will be direst.  Substituting for the old appeal to class solidarity the new appeal to the most sensational museum of horrors. Less revolutionary uplift, more history as slash film binging – in which the goal is to develop the best perch from which to say I told you so.

Well, my instinct is to say: fuck that. It seems like a perversion of the honest prophet’s standard, which is to endure visions that are supposed to lead to repentance and reform – which are downers, aesthetically, posed next to catharsis, I do confess, but which are redeemed by utopia, which better be on the horizon or we really are going to be imprisoned in the slasher flick.

That said, Franco Berandi Bifo’s phrase – which I take from his introduction to Frederico Campagna’s The Last Night – seems to resonate with current circs. Precarity has been in the vocabulary for some time now, but as a scandal – as an aberration that a sound economic policy would heal. Bifo is right, however – it is becoming a culture. Far from being an aberration of neo-liberalism, it is intrinsic to devolving all power to the market, and thus arming private power with an enormous weapon, threatening the vast majority in their routines and nests.

I don’t know when I first heard the phrase “your money or your life”, but my guess is that it was either uttered by a cartoon animal or by an old movie actor in some film on Channel 17 – which was the channel for old movies in the Atlanta area when I was growing up. And no doubt I said it too, playing highwayman. The stagecoach robber, who in his own time was summarily strung up when caught, became encrusted with movie glamor over the centuries – something that Henry Fielding, who caught a mess of them, is no doubt chuckling about in Heaven. I did not know, however, that this mantra, much more than the pledge of allegiance or the Lord’s prayer, would basically guide my life, and the life of my playmates, teachers, parents, their friends, and the community as a whole. At the time I was growing up – I was what, 12 in 1969/70? – there was a sense abroad in the country that life more abundant was the question we had to face. Civil rights and the sexual revolution and prosperity for the workers and the white collar middle managers was just going to go on forever. It was a delusion. Most of my life has been spent in the ruins of that delusion (although don’t tell the American media, which still exudes the belief that the middle class, defined as those making 400,000 and more a year, are the defining feature of the American landscape). This pandemic shows the extent to which the highwayman’s slogan is breathing down our necks every day.
There have been worse pandemics. But I can’t remember worse state responses. I want the glamor back, at least. Everywhere, the neoliberal state shows that in its obsession with finance, its structured inequality, its devotion of state power to the expansion of the reach and wealth of the upper one percent, it has become an actual menace to its citizens. I wonder if I will ever see the day when the majority just casts off its servility and turns the question on the overseers of our misery. I wonder if the age of precarity is here to stay. Everything in me says that it can’t be like this forever.


In Matthew 16: 25, Jesus sez: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

In the neoliberal era, we have an easy answer:  we don’t have souls! It is a LOL era, and every new atheist can join in and jeer. Myself, though, I think it is the basic question, the one at the root of our time, the question that pervades our economy and our time.

In a sermon entitled Foolish Exchange, the seventeenth century divine Jeremy Taylor did an eloquent song and dance around this saying, in the high Anglican style, rooting through  every word in Greek and Latin. William Hazlitt, in an essay comparing Taylor to Francis Bacon and Thomas Browne, wrote, justly that we do not come to Taylor for new reasons, but for textures. “and enters into all the items of the debtor and creditor account between life and death, grace and nature, faith and good works.” Hazlitt’s metaphor of the account serves us well here, and shows what a keen sense Hazlitt had for the motif. The sermon, as Hazlitt’s description makes plain, is kin to the novel, a secret sharer of that device for making sense of the ceaseless and perhaps senseless flow of what is. As a man at the edge of the era’s conventional and unconventional wisdom, Taylor fastens on to an exchange that is beginning to be called into question by new terms in the new philosophy. He is still immersed in the traditional order, and that makes his exposition about what it means to gain the world of historical and anthropological interest, especially as it casts light on the age old suppositions about fortune and the limits of plenty – the old image of the limited good, the zero sum, the Malthusian limit under which the people of the seventeenth century thought of themselves, just as the figures in Grimm’s Tales thought of themselves, still absorbing the discoveries in America and the Indies.

“First, then, suppose a man gets all the world, what is it that he gets? It is a bubble and a phantasm, and hath no reality beyond a present transient  use; a thing that is impossible to be enjoyed, because its furits and usages are transmitted to us by parts and by succession. He that hath all the world (if we can suppose such a man) cannot have a dish of fresh summer-fruits in the midst of winter, not so much as a green fig; and very much of its possessions is so hid, so fugacious, and of so uncertain purchase, that it is like the riches of the sea to the lord of the shore; all the fish and wealth within all its hollowness are his, but he is never the better for what he cannot get: all the shell-fishes that produce pearl, produce not for him.”

Taylor’s image is not irrelevant, even in a time in which we can get green figs out of season, due to the endless logistics of global trade, the technologies of freezing and fertilizer and the ceaseless exploitation of man and topsoil. We can get foods from Thailand and Iceland if we live in a metropolis big enough to boost of ethnic restaurants. We can enjoy avocados in piles in the Von’s grocery store in Los Angeles in December. However, what we know, or think we know, from the theory of marginal disutility, is that having a billion dollars can buy you a sickening amount of avocadoes, but not the body or appetite to swallow them all down. We know that it is extremely hard to live a lifestyle that actually absorbs a billion dollars – billionaires turn out not to be epicurians, for the most part, but tyrants. It is not the enjoyment of the world, but the power over the world that is the lure in this exchange.

One that, of course, depends, crucially, on the soul. For “soul” in this exchange we might tend to substitute “life”, thinking ourselves quite the enlightened wits and avoiding religiously drenched sentiment. I think, however, that life is as superstitious an entity in this discourse, as imprecise a nominator, than soul – for we are talking about desire, awareness, intention, dreaming, the whole bundle of things that go into the human biographies we walk among, we remember, we are. And even, I dare say, of human things – soul food or Baudelaire’s the soul of wine, soul music and our, if Nelson George is right, post-soul culture.

In Emil Kauler’s standard “A History of Marginal Utility”, the background reference to the ancients is more Aristotle than Jesus. Reference to the Foolish Exchange passage is entirely absent. Rather, Kauler makes various  encouragingly positivist remarks the general indifference of the science of economics  towards religion, such as “Economists [of the 19th century] no longer thought consistently in accordance with their religious backgrounds.”  In other words, during the work week, they cast of the mind-forged manacles of man, and only on Sunday did they don them, for the purposes of decorum and the beauties of choral music. One should remember here that economist refers to an institutional title, and does not refer to the practical economics being performed by laymen as the landlord pounds on the door for the rent.  

Marginal theory replaced the classical economics labor theory of value in the paradigm of the science in the late 19th, early twentieth century, the same period that saw the rise of department stores and the second wave of consumer culture – which I would date, symbolically, with the Singer company’s new pay on the installment plan sales pitch to households. The focus was shifted from production to consumption.

In William Stanley Jevon’s system, “utility changes with the rate in which the amount of goods changes” – thus making a plea for the older idea of supply restraints as being the ultimate determinant of prices. Yet Jevons was not your old-fangled Benthamite utilitarian, but the new type, applying a very British nominalism to the very concept of utility. Utility was ultimately determined by the subject, and one couldn’t really find a common essence that one could measure: “To speak simply of the value of one ounce of gold is as absurd as to speak of the ratio of the number seventeen.” Instead of measuring utility itself – that x for which man is exchanging his soul – we can only measure exchange, the relations between commodities and human product in the market – the market in which souls are traded. Jevons is proposing an early version of what would later be called revealed preferences – with the great revelator being the marketplace.

And it is in this matrix of unmeasurable subjects and their measurable addictions, or satisfactions, that we find ourselves and our souls now. Now, in the great pandemic.

From my own experience, the fear for myself and for others, and my observations of some of our buddies and family who are all undergoing le grand renfermement, the thing that is running in our heads is: are we going to die leaving these x-s and y-s – our scattered affections, our life in the office or jerking-off, our sense of politics and literature or video games or junk food behind us as our definition, who we are, what we gained?  In the grand all about, we have pretty much dispensed with the afterlife as a justification. We, here, is actually a minority – I imagine a majority of the population has some idea of the afterlife that I and my system of cultural references don’t share. A more robust sense of heaven and hell, or an other sense altogether.

The margins have had their victory over the marginals. But I’m thinking that this is not the end of the story.

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