Movements of Counter-Speculation: A Conversation with Michel Feher
By William CallisonJuly 12, 2019
Rated Agency is at once a history of postwar economic governance, a theory of financial capitalism, and an analysis of contemporary left social movements. Taking stock of the world wrought by neoliberalism and financialization, Feher explores the ascendancy of shareholder value, the social logic of creditworthiness, and the double-edged politics of ratings and rankings.
In constant dialogue with the time-tested tactics of the labor movement, the book reconsiders a classic question: “What is to be done?” Feher calls on the left to embrace new strategies for a new era, many of which are already being deployed. Just as union organizers practiced immanent resistance to industrial capitalism by leveraging collective power over profit extraction, he argues, contemporary activists must also pursue an immanent form of resistance by appropriating the distinct logic of financialized capitalism: credit allocation.
In this interview, William Callison speaks with Michel Feher about the political dynamics of our new “speculative age.” Feher addresses the difference between neoliberalism and financialization, the legacy and import of Marxist and union organizing strategies, the meaning of investee politics, and the perpetual task of overcoming left melancholy. From activist counter-speculation to “gig” cooperatives, he discusses forms of resisting finance from within — that is, efforts to appropriate its image, logic, and temporality for alternative ends.
WILLIAM CALLISON: “Neoliberalism” and “financialization” have become increasingly important terms for scholars and activists alike. At the beginning of Rated Agency, you caution against conflating the two concepts. What is the difference between them and why do you consider it so significant?
MICHAEL FEHER: Neoliberalism refers to a mode of government devised in the postwar period by an international cohort of scholars who worried about the impending demise of the “free world.” Notwithstanding some doctrinal differences between them, Friedrich Hayek, the Freiburg School ordoliberals, and Milton Friedman’s circle at the Chicago School agreed that, to ward off “creeping socialism,” drastic changes were in order.
The neoliberals faulted Keynesian-inspired governments for believing that the prevention of market failure and the appeasement of the working class justified tampering with the price mechanism — with minimum wages, rent control, socialized health care, and public pension systems. They also castigated corporate managers for giving precedence to endogenous growth over profit maximization and for using collective bargaining to entrench their own power. Finally, and most importantly, they lamented that the wrongheaded priorities of politicians and employers persuaded wage earners to stake their welfare on state support and labor unions rather than on their own individual efforts and initiatives.
To keep the socialist fox out of the liberal henhouse, the neoliberal luminaries designed a three-pronged program. Their agenda involved harnessing the powers and resources of the state to protect market mechanisms from political distortions, teaching CEOs that their loyalty should rest with shareholders, and converting wage earners to the values of the business community. These were central tenets of neoliberalism before the rise of financialization.
Weren’t these neoliberal programs eventually implemented?
Of course, with the “conservative revolution” led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, neoliberal recommendations became public policies in the United Kingdom and the United States — and soon thereafter in the rest of the industrialized world. However, my claim is that the implementation of the neoliberal agenda transformed capitalist societies in ways that neoliberal intellectuals neither announced nor even foresaw.
To modify the priorities of elected officials and corporate managers, neoliberal reformers enabled financial markets to discipline them. On the one hand, deregulating hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts exposed CEOs to the threat of being ousted if they underperformed in the stock market. On the other hand, as massive tax rebates compelled governments to borrow the funds that fiscal revenues no longer provided, meeting bond market expectations became the golden rule of statecraft.
Once shareholders and bondholders imposed themselves as the arbiters of “good” governance, elected officials did their utmost to offer investors what they find most attractive — i.e., flexible labor markets and business-friendly tax codes. This yielded stagnating wages, precarious jobs, and shrinking social programs. Consequently, a large proportion of the wage-earning population could no longer stake their prosperity on salaries and benefits alone. To make ends meet, wage earners had no choice but to rely on commercial credit. The same process that had subjected corporations to shareholders and national governments to bondholders extended the sway of financial institutions — and their speculative criteria of ratings and rankings — to households as well.
For corporations, states, and citizens, the implementation of the neoliberal agenda resulted in the ascendency of finance. The latter certainly succeeded in keeping Euro-Atlantic societies off “the road to (socialist) serfdom.” Yet by socially engineering a new kind of agency, financialization produced a very different type of subject than the one that neoliberal intellectuals had in mind.
What is the difference between financialized “agency” and the kind of subjectivity the neoliberals had envisioned?
The neoliberal intellectuals wanted to facilitate the advent of a world where everyone — capital owners, wage earners, and even the unemployed — would have no option but to think and behave like profit-seeking entrepreneurs. In such a world, everyone must envision their lives as a business and assess their decisions in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. By contrast, people and institutions subjected to the ratings of financial markets tend to think and behave like credit-seeking portfolio managers; as such, their primary concern is not what they earn but the valuation of their assets.
Firms that seek to sustain shareholder confidence, for example, care more about capital gains than commercial profits. (Overgrown startups such as Amazon or Uber have seen their stock value soar while they were incurring massive losses; most S&P 500 firms use a fair share of their resources to buy back their own stocks instead of investing in profitable ventures.) Likewise, governments that depend on bondholder trust turn the market value of their public debt into the compass for economic policies.
And the same is true for households that seek to preserve their living standards. Faced with precarious jobs and a shrinking social safety net, they are forced to rely less on wages and benefits than on the appreciation of their own resources: real estate, savings, skills, connections. And when they lack all of the above, they must try to turn their flexibility and availability into valuable assets.
The subjects fashioned by financialized capitalism thus scarcely fit the entrepreneurial mold that neoliberal reforms were supposed to cast. Financial markets do not address businesspeople looking for a profitable deal; what they see are projects looking for investors and trying to generate bullish speculations about themselves. Successful entrepreneurs are expected to maximize the income generated by the sale of the commodities in their possession, whereas speculative projects are expected to increase the attractiveness of their (material and human) capital in the eyes of potential sponsors.
In the book, you argue that the “rated agency” of financialized capitalism has already crystalized into a new paradigm of left activism. What exactly is the difference between the traditional model of labor organizing and the new model you call “investee politics”?
Since the 19th century, the conditions of employment under capitalism have been at the center of workers’ movement struggles. Marx shows that capitalist exploitation is predicated on the construction of certain types of subjects: namely, the “free workers” who are recognized and must identify as the owners of a commodity called “labor power,” which they are “free” to sell in the labor market. Free workers are exploited, then, because they are paid wages that reflect the market price of their labor power rather than the wealth that their labor creates. The difference between the price of commodities that workers produce and the exchange value of commodified labor necessary to produce them is what enables capital owners to make a profit.
Labor exploitation obviously remains a major cause of outrage and organizing today, and expected return on investment certainly corresponds to the Marxist definition of capitalist profit. However, the surplus value that investors manage to siphon from the labor process, whether as dividends or as interests, does not do justice to their peculiar role and power in our financialized world. What is specific to investors as such is their ability to select which projects deserve resources. Rather than the appropriation of income, the allocation of capital is their prerogative.
My claim, therefore, is that the ascendency of finance shifts the axis of left grievance from how capitalism generates profit to how capitalism dispenses credit. Once investors are empowered to dictate the conduct of employers, the privileged site of social conflict changes: it moves from markets where labor is made into a commodity (and priced accordingly) to markets where all kinds of endeavors are turned into assets (and rated as such).
If these two capitalist operations not only differ but also require corresponding forms of resistance, are you implying that old and new strategies of left mobilization are incompatible with one another?
The stakes and substance of the two kinds of activism clearly differ. Labor unions fight over the price of labor in order to modify the distribution of income between employers and employees. Investee activists challenge the ratings issued by investors in order to shake their hold on the circulation of capital. The question raised by the labor movement is: What is fair? The question investee activists want to answer is: What is valuable?
Surely, the strategy that the early workers’ movement devised remains a crucial source of inspiration for those contesting the hegemony of investors in the realm of rated assets. As I mentioned before, what Marxists call exploitation is predicated on the condition of the free worker: under liberal law, employers and employees are both perceived as businesspeople who are equally free to negotiate the price of the commodities in their possession. In the past, labor activists certainly denounced the false equality implied by the status of the free worker, which they identified as the condition responsible for their exploitation. Yet they also appropriated it for their own purposes. What are labor unions if not coalitions of free workers who come together to negotiate collectively — and thus improve — the price of their labor power?
Taking stock of this dual strategy of exposure and appropriation in the age of financialized capitalism involves both identifying and espousing the subjective condition that financial actors shape and address. But investors don’t address employees as businesspeople selling their labor power. What they see are investees — or, to be more precise, “project bearers” looking to be invested in. This latter condition expresses the rating and selecting power of investors, who compel everyone to meet their criteria of creditworthiness. In keeping with the strategy of the labor movement of yore, today’s activists should not only expose their investee condition as a form of subjection; they should also appropriate it in order to enter the rating game for their own purposes.
Let’s turn to the relationship between theory and practice. In the book, you examine a series of social movements from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests (NoDAPL) and Strike Debt! to the PAH (platform for the victims of evictions) in Spain. You call the activism of these movements “counter-speculative.” How do you understand counter-speculation in relation to investee activism? And why do you consider these particular movements exemplary cases of resistance?
Let me return to the comparison between investee activism and the labor movement. In order to reclaim a fairer share of the surplus value created by workers, trade unions have had to learn how to negotiate the price of their affiliates’ labor power with employers. Bargaining collectively, going on strike, and other forms of industrial action belong to this register of action, which is indeed the most pertinent register when your aim is acting on prices. However, when activists seek to modify the allocation of credit, which depends on how different projects looking for investment are rated, what they need to learn is not so much how to negotiate but how to counter-speculate.
Ratings, after all, are the product of speculations, not of negotiations. Divestment campaigns such as NoDAPL are exemplary in this regard. Whereas boycotts have a long history, what is new with divestment campaigns is that they are less about raising consciousness within the general public than about acting on what Keynes called the “animal spirits” of investors. Their primary purpose is to modify the speculative mindset of liquidity providers, to make them worry about the impact of irresponsible investments (like the Dakota Access Pipeline) on the overall value of their portfolio.
Though in a different realm, the “debt collectives” that Strike Debt! has endeavored to assemble are also involved in what I call counter-speculation. The idea behind them is not only to raise debtors’ class consciousness, so to speak, but also, and more importantly, to gather collectives large enough to give serious weight to the threat of default.
The point is to make debtors into the functional (though inverse) equivalent of a bank that is “too big to fail.”
Exactly. Put another way, the goal is to collectivize the power of individual ratings into a movement and a threat that investors and governments cannot afford to ignore. But to answer your question, there is an important difference between these debt collectives and the NoDAPL activists (who effectively forced cities, companies, and banks to disinvest), on the one hand, and the traditional tactics of the labor movement, on the other.
To confront employers over the price of labor, employees modeled their organizations on bosses’ cartels. A labor union, after all, is a consortium of labor-power producers who, instead of competing with one another, decide to cooperate in order to “rig” negotiations with their clients and “fix” the price of the product they sell. Investee activists are also modeling their mode of operation on a capitalist institution. But this time it is not the cartel; it is the rating agency. The purpose of investee activists is to alter the speculations that produce the ratings of corporate as well as governmental projects.
Taking their cue from employers’ cartels is what enabled labor unions to intervene in the distribution of profit. Emulating rating agencies — say, evaluating the social and environmental impact of corporate governance and public policies — is arguably the adequate way to act on the conditions of credit allocation today.
This approaches what is perhaps the core feature in your theory of financialization. In the book, you show that a generalized logic of creditworthiness has effectively dissolved the traditional division between “economic” and “non-economic” endeavors. Speculative investment, or ratings and rankings, are thus not only economic but also moral, psychological, social, and political valuations …
The notion of credit is capacious. On the one hand, it designates both the resources that an investor allocates to a project and the ability of an investee to attract them. On the other hand, it alternatively refers to a financial valuation and a moral validation. Being deemed creditworthy can translate into venture capital investment or loans at a reasonable interest rate; but it can also translate into buzz, prestige, material or emotional support.
So if I am right to claim that financialized capitalism breeds credit-seeking portfolio managers, then the condition to which we are assigned does not square with the widely shared assumption — especially on the left — that, under the current version of capitalism, social relations are pervaded by purely economic concerns and calculations.
Neoliberal economists, and especially Chicago School luminaries like Gary Becker, certainly wished to fashion a world where virtually all human transactions would be turned into negotiations about actual prices. In turn, many detractors of neoliberalism speak of a pervasive economization of social life and lament the disappearance of “authentic” or “priceless” experiences.
However, the advent of a regime of capital accumulation driven by asset appreciation does not attest to the colonization of human interactions by crude economic concerns and metrics. Rather, it attests to the breakdown of the divide between economic and non-economic dimensions of life.
So speculation that drives “financial” as well as “social” ratings and rankings is not the same thing as negotiation that determines price …
Ratings don’t put a price on everything: they express the momentary state of speculations about the “worthiness” of an asset — whether it is the stock of a company, a piece of real estate, a skill, a type of conduct, the identification with cultural heritage, or a claim to a certain set of norms. Moreover, the empowerment expected from a favorable rating is not necessarily measurable in economic terms; the pursuit of appreciation is not translatable into what neoclassical economists call the optimization of utility.
That credit is irreducible to profit does not make our world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. But I would argue that it reframes the political stakes. For investee activists, the reign of credit is not a curse to reverse but a challenge to meet: what ultimately matters is who gets credit, and for what. This is the logic behind divestment campaigns and debt collectives. But it is also the driving motivation of other emerging social movements whose immediate concern is not the apportioning of financial capital but the allocation of moral and social credit.
Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and March for Our Lives are hardly indifferent to specific reforms regarding police practices, workplace environment, or gun control. But they are arguably focused on producing and circulating their own rating system. Their purpose is to generate counter-speculations about the value of certain kinds of conduct, to discredit behaviors hitherto protected (by gender norms, institutional privilege, powerful lobbies, et cetera), to valorize the lives affected by these behaviors, and to change the terms and outcomes of public debate.
In addition to social movements like these, you also show how workers’ cooperatives and the entire “gig economy” are implicated in similar logics. For example, you argue that the latter both presupposes and cultivates a highly flexible, socially networked, self-appreciating kind of worker. This is obviously a heightened condition of worker uncertainty, precarity, and domination. Yet you also see a “silver lining” in ways that certain co-ops are currently organizing. Why?
At first glance, the “gig economy” is a neoliberal dream come true. Insofar as platforms enable suppliers and customers to meet and trade without requiring companies to hire workers, they seem to operate like a virtual prosthesis of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” However, in the absence of employment contracts, gig seekers primarily depend on their reputational capital. They cease to be employees only to become investees whose lot is a function of the likes, reviews, and followers they manage to gather. Consequently, solidarity among these platform dwellers will be less about raising the price of their labor power than about boosting each other’s credit.
The budding mobilizations of “uberized” workers — whether they are Uber and Lyft drivers, mobile couriers, or digital laborers — attest to such a shift. On the one hand, contingent workers mobilize and often go to court in order to have their work reclassified — that is, to be recognized as employees, rather than commercial partners, of the platforms for which they work. On the other hand, these activists also know that the business model of the so-called “lean platforms” is incompatible with wage labor. This means that, by winning their case, they are likely to provoke the bankruptcy of their “employer.”
That uberized activists are aware that victory in the courts may cost them their jobs conveys that they are ultimately less interested in normalizing capitalist platforms than in jeopardizing their operations. Rather than turn these predators into regular employers, their goal is to compete with them — to challenge their hegemony through the creation of worker-owned cooperatives.
In other words, while the gig economy is extremely detrimental to unions — since it actually aims to eliminate wage labor altogether — the brave new world created by predatory platforms proves conducive to a rebirth of co-ops. Task and service providers exploited by the likes of Uber, Deliveroo, TaskRabbit, Airbnb, or Amazon Mechanical Turk are increasingly inclined to resist by creating their own alternative, worker-owned platforms, rather than by trying to integrate into the salaried workforce.
My point here is not to claim that co-ops are the blueprint of a post-capitalist world. My point is simply to stress that, while each new regime of capital accumulation generates its own forms of resistance, it also shapes the social and political imaginary of the activists involved in mounting them. The aspirations of today’s precariat may thus diverge from the socialist and communist utopias that mobilized the industrial proletariat.
Your book begins by noting that “[t]he Left has not always held a monopoly on melancholy.” It ends by discussing the temporality of resistance, the nostalgia for postwar welfare-statism, and the problem with “left populists” who construct national rather than international political horizons. Why do you see “investee activism” as an alternative to backward-looking leftisms of various kinds?
First, there is the problem of financialized time. Ultimately, the reason why corporate managers and state officials submit to investors’ dictates has to do with their hold on time. Employees and constituents seek to influence their employers and elected representatives through collective bargaining and voting. At times this may include industrial action and public protest. However, going on strike, casting a vote, demonstrating, even occupying a factory or a public square are all discrete acts — that is, in the mathematical sense of discrete: they occur once in a while and eventually end — until the next time. Financial markets, on the other hand, exercise their power continuously. Their ratings are issued every nanosecond, and they never give investees a break. In this way, they manage to preempt the claims of wage earners on corporate governance and of citizens on public policies.
To counter this power imbalance — between shareholders and stakeholders, between bondholders and voters — some segments of the left long for the restoration of nation-states that would be, once again, independent and insulated enough so as to protect their citizens’ sovereignty from the continuous pressure of global finance. The problem with such a longing, however, is not only that reinforced borders, tariffs, and measures to prevent capital flight are unlikely to be efficient. More importantly, staking resistance to financial capitalism on the revamping of national sovereignty is likely to prove more beneficial to the extreme right than to the left — as well as enticing the left to boost its populist credentials by venturing into nationalist terrain on issues such as immigration.
Investee activism, it seems to me, offers an alternative to the delusions and dangers of the nation-state revival on the left. Instead of looking for a sanctuary space sheltered from investors’ ratings, investee activists seek to occupy investors’ turf and time. By devising their own techniques of continuous assessment and harassment, they emulate the speculative mindset of their antagonists and, in so doing, alter the allocation of credit — in both the narrow and capacious senses of the word.
William Callison is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College. He is co-editor (with Zachary Manfredi) of Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (Fordham University Press, forthcoming 2019).
Banner image: "Stock Market Indices (USD real values, normalized)" by Karsten Reuß is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
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