OCTOBER 23, 2019
DO YOU BELIEVE in life after work? At the start of a four-week academic strike in the United Kingdom in 2018, a union activist paired this question with graphics referencing Cher’s 1990s mega-hit “Believe” and shared the image with a few friends over email. By the end of the first week, their creation had spread to become the defining meme of the strike. From Facebook and Twitter, it migrated to IRL signs and could soon be glimpsed in news photos of pickets and marches up and down the country. On its face, the question pointed toward the threat to pensions at the heart of the dispute, by asking members to consider whether they still expected to be able to retire and what they would risk to protect that future. On a more utopian reading, the question also invited strikers — many of them temporary lecturers with no expectation of a pension even should the industrial action succeed — to look beyond the immediate concerns of the dispute and toward more radically open futures, including the possibility of a life after waged labor itself.
Considered in light of Lisa Adkins’s new book, The Time of Money (Stanford University Press, 2018), the Cher meme might be understood as a variation on the “No Future” protest signs carried at anti-austerity demonstrations across the globe over the last decade. As Adkins points out, such time-based slogans have become rallying cries for activists since the 2007–’08 financial crisis. The power of such slogans, Adkins argues, arises in part from what she calls normative versions of time, or widely shared views about how time should unfold, what events it should contain, and how they should be ordered. In the case of the pension dispute, for example, these beliefs might include the conviction that full-time work should not continue past the age of 65 or that workers can guarantee future retirement through sustained labor in their prime. By evoking these convictions in the form of a question, the meme gestures toward an irony that is central to Adkins’s overarching argument: because such beliefs are so ingrained, they often become visible to us only once they are cast in doubt. What made the question of life after work so resonant, in other words, is that it illuminated the erosion not just of the pension system but also of long-standing views about the organization of time — in this case, the view that waged labor should end some years before death.
In The Time of Money, Adkins identifies similar judgments in several high-profile left critiques of “financialization,” or the explosion and dominance of the financial sector since the 1970s. If we use time-based standards to measure the effects of financialization, she suggests, then it will appear destructive to our experience of time in much the way it did in the pensions dispute. But just because time no longer works the way we have come to expect does not mean it has ceased to work at all — quite the opposite. Instead, Adkins argues, financialization creates suffering as much through the production of new forms of temporal experience as through the destruction of the old forms, which were themselves the result of years of sustained struggle by labor. When we focus on the loss of familiar ways of organizing time, she suggests, we can fail to notice the very different experiences of time that financialization increasingly puts in their place. Adkins’s book aims to identify these emergent forms of time and the burdens they create, and it offers a chillingly thorough account of the way the new times of finance are remaking everyday experience.
Adkins frames her study through what she calls the “logic of speculation.” She argues that this logic shapes both the accumulation of surplus value and the organization of social relations in the era of financialization. Her linking of accumulation and social organization under a single logic draws on Karl Marx’s theorization of industrial capitalism, albeit with an important difference. For Marx, what links the organization of work and the organization of social relations within industrial capitalism is the logic of extraction, or the drive to accumulate as much surplus value from laboring bodies as possible. In place of this rationality, Adkins suggests, financialization requires that social relations be organized to maximize accumulation through speculation, or the “flows and movements of money” through “indeterminate and nonchronological” forms of time.
She traces this phenomenon, for example, in the practice of “securitization” — that is, “the transformation of assets via legal and financial instruments into liquid securities (including asset-backed securities) that can be sold and traded on finance markets.” One example is the trade in derivatives, arguably the most notorious security at the moment. In general, derivatives operate as a bet on what is predicted to happen to an asset over time. For instance, two parties agree that one will sell the other a bunch of goods at a set date and price in the future. The buyer is betting that the value of the goods in the future will be higher than the set price agreed in the present, while the seller is betting that the value will be lower than that price. For derivative traders, though, what is bought and sold is not the goods but rather the bet itself. While all financial trading involves competing predictions about the future, derivatives allow traders to make money by buying and selling those very predictions, which involve various types of risk undertaken in relation to an infinite range of possible outcomes. Read in terms of Adkins’s temporal framework, this could be understood as a market in chunks of time carved out by different expectations about the way present and future will relate to one another, whose price is set by the expectations of the traders themselves. The opportunity for profit, in other words, arises from the lack of synchronicity across an array of rates and durations through which risk unfolds in time. This is a time in which times do not line up. Adkins calls it “speculative time.”
Although this experience of time may appear remote or arcane, she argues that it forms the bridge between speculation as financialization and speculation as a principle of social organization. Caught between the rock of austerity measures and the hard place of falling real wages, Adkins recounts, people increasingly must “put their money in motion” through payday loans, credit card debt, exorbitant student loans, payments on under-water mortgages, and so on. Just as in high finance, however, this traffic in “everyday money” requires and produces speculative time. As she describes in a meaty chapter on individual debt, for example, the indebted aren’t robbed of the future or temporal progression but rather forced to endure a life in which time is all too present as a vehicle for incessant, conflicting monetary demands. Anyone who has ever had to weigh past-due credit card payments against the date at which the rent check will be cashed against the amount of gas left in the tank will understand immediately the enforced, uneven, yet unremitting forms of time Adkins references here. The need to put everyday money in motion binds people to extreme versions of this unremitting time by requiring that they juggle proliferating possibilities and failures regarding credit, payment, or nonpayment. This is speculative time as both a vehicle for survival and a distinct and increasingly common form of human suffering.
As she tracks these sorts of transformations across the key sites of everyday money in the present — including austerity, debt, wages, and unemployment — Adkins’s disciplinary background in sociology proves a distinct advantage to her account. It enables a refreshing and enlightening focus on specific changes to structures such as welfare as they unfold in related ways across the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, without losing sight of the import of her claims for ongoing theoretical debates about the import of financialization. Because it directs readers’ attention to the operations of the social imaginary in this way, Adkins’s methodological framing opens a space of engagement outside of ongoing debates regarding speculation as a form of accumulation particular to the present. Marxists in particular tend to dispute that financialization is either anything new or a form of accumulation in its own right. Yet lived social experience can be transformed by the way speculation appears to function as both new and valuable, even if that appearance is disputable or inaccurate, and it is this level of experience Adkins primarily addresses. For that reason, her analysis may have utility even for those who disagree with some of her premises. In further work, this utility could be extended by taking into account the persistence of extraction outside the centers of metropolitan finance and the effect this persistence has on the uneven construction of social experience. In particular, Neferti X. M. Tadiar’s theories regarding the way “lifetimes” in the Global South are made to underwrite financialized transactions elsewhere would provide a powerful complement to Adkins’s explanation of the time of speculation.
There is also more to be said, it seems to me, about the similarity Adkins notes between speculation as an experimental temporality celebrated by feminist theory and speculation as the time of accumulation in the era of financialization. That Adkins presents such a potentially incendiary judgment as mere methodological background makes it clear that her interests are firmly located elsewhere in this volume. Yet, particularly given that feminist philosophers were far from the only left theorists who pinned radical hopes on various forms of asynchronous, event-based time in the 1990s and 2000s, I would argue that this is a disturbing resemblance to say the least. If the temporal arguments advanced by left theory in the last 30 years have turned out to describe not the time of radical practice but the time of financialized accumulation, then this is an outcome that seems to me to merit further consideration, perhaps by those who build upon this work if not by Adkins herself. As it stands, however, The Time of Money offers a powerful account of the damage created by the time of money, not least by making visible the emerging temporal experiences we miss when we limit our attention to the passing of the old.
Jane Elliott is Reader in Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory at King’s College London. She is the author of The Microeconomic Mode: Political Subjectivity and Contemporary Popular Aesthetics (Columbia University Press, 2019) and other works.