December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

We invite papers which address the full range of questions posed by these considerations, including topics such as:

  • The ontology of platforms
  • The epistemology of platforms
  • Methodological challenges in studying platforms
  • The transformation of the social sciences
  • The politics and political economy of platforms
  • Platforms as evaluative infrastructures
  • Platform education and the platform university 

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

We welcome abstracts of 500 words or less by July 31st 2018, sent to Please include a brief biographical note, as well as three key words to categorise your submission. We also plan to publish a select set of papers as a special issue or edited book and are in conversation with journal editors and publishers. We hope to have limited travel and accommodation funding available for unfunded PhD students and post-docs but cannot confirm this at present.

To frame the commercialisation of space as being somehow related to ‘platform capitalism’ risks misunderstanding. It is certainly the case that Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, owes his wealth to Amazon but this has become a platform over time rather than being founded as one. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, owes his early success to PayPal, a finance platform which was purchased at great expense by a peer-to-peer commerce platform, but he is far from the quintessential platform capitalist. Meanwhile, there are other players in the commercial space industry, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and brand-for-hire Richard Branson, who have little to do with what we talk about when we use a term like platform capitalism.

Therefore what I mean when I talk about the interplanetary horizons of platform capitalism is not the commercial history of the founders of these companies, though they have accumulated their wealth over the period where platforms have become ubiquitous and tech firms have become the most highly valued commercial entities on the planet. This has certainly facilitated their development, with Bezos largely self-financing his company until recently and Musk cross-fertilising his reputation and leveraging the Silicon Valley cult of the founder to win attention, overcome incumbents and force his way into the lucrative field of state contracts. But we miss what is most interesting about the commercialisation of space if we focus exclusively on these figures.

What interests me is how the platform, as an operable business model but also a heuristic working analogically to collapse the vast array of future opportunities into specifiable strategies, frames the new phase of space travel we are beginning to enter into. This is something Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen explicitly invokes on pg 266-267 of Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons:

Allen also saw parallels between the space frontier and the Internet. “When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” he said. “That’s the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient, and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.… “Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO [low Earth orbit] holds similar revolutionary potential.”

The same case is made by Jeff Bezos is in terms of infrastructure. These firms are building the infrastructure which make commercial innovation in space feasible, creating facilitates and crafting pipelines which other players will be able to use. The ambition here is vast, seeking to save capitalism from itself by moving it into space. For Musk, hope lies with Mars and the extension of technological civilisation there to move beyond the confines of a dying earth. For Bezos, we must move industry beyond Earth and preserve our habitat as the place to live while commerce, mining and manufacturing expand outwards to the stars. There is a civilisational vision in both cases, necessary to recognise even if we don’t take it seriously.

It is easy to dismiss this as hubris, the outsized dreams of billionaires with too few restraints on how they spend their vast wealth. It is perhaps more fair, even if inaccurate, if we see it as an ideological front to cover expansion into the largest area of state spending which until recently remained untouched by private commerce. But I’m increasingly convinced there’s more going on here than either explanation can recognise. Platform capitalism has interplanetary horizons which we should take seriously because they make a difference, even if they prove logistically or technologically unfeasible in the longer term. This is the frontier of how digital elites think about capitalism and its future, liable to exercise an enormous influence upon our collective world in which these figures have near untrammelled power.

December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

We invite papers which address the full range of questions posed by these considerations, including topics such as:

  • The ontology of platforms
  • The epistemology of platforms
  • Methodological challenges in studying platforms
  • The transformation of the social sciences
  • The politics and political economy of platforms
  • Platforms as evaluative infrastructures
  • Platform education and the platform university 

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

We welcome abstracts of 500 words or less by July 31st 2018, sent to Please include a brief biographical note, as well as three key words to categorise your submission. We also plan to publish a select set of papers as a special issue or edited book and are in conversation with journal editors and publishers. We hope to have limited travel and accommodation funding available for unfunded PhD students and post-docs but cannot confirm this at present.

From Riots and Political Protest, by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, Daniels Briggs and James Treadwell. From pg 101:

The hope of the majority of those on the left these days is to see the return of genuine social democracy, but to us this drive to return to the past seems both naïve and strangely defeatist. This defeatism reflects the triumph of liberalism and the absolute, unquestioned acceptance that liberal democracy is the best of all available systems. It reflects a deep faith in capitalism’s ability to bestow upon us consumer items that, before their arrival, we didn’t even know that we wanted. All other economic systems seem irredeemably tarnished and unable to deliver to us the forms of material excess that we now believe to be absolutely essential to civilised social life.

What I find particularly provocative is their argument that there’s fetishistic  disavowal at work in at least some advocacy of social democracy. Do intellectuals advocating past-capitalism do so because on some level they really don’t desire post-capitalism, without being able to admit this to themselves?

In various posts over the last few years, I’ve written about my fascination with images of civilisational collapse. Reading Riots and Political Protest, by Steve Hall, Simon Winlow, Daniel Briggs and James Treadwell, I find myself wondering if this fascination is in large part because of how ‘civilisational collapse’ and the ‘end of capitalism’ tend to be conflated under our present circumstances. As they write on pg 18,

The dominant images of the end of capitalism in Western culture are those of absolute economic devastation and crushing hardship, a return to Dark Age repression and poverty. In the popular imagination, capitalism is lively and vivacious, and all alternatives to it are dull, grey and monotonous.

Images of civilisational collapse are so emotive under current conditions because of our much remarked upon inability to imagine a world beyond capitalism. For this reason I think sociological engagements with how these dystopias are represented could provide rewarding. By identifying their questionable assumptions, highlighting what is untenable in accounts of collapse and what might turn out differently in reality, could we open up the space in which to think about a beyond rather than merely an end?

This essay on Medium has reminded me of my idea to write a short satirical self-help book, addressing individual problems as social and economic issues: 

 If I am struggling financially it is because the financial system is morally corrupt. This truth is a mantric elixir — repeat it to yourself every time the habits of your mind whisper that it is your fault.

A great article by 

Can one therefore imagine that capitalism is a caputalism bearing the Cain’s mark of collapse? And how can we envisage this end?

“The image I have of the end of capitalism — an end that I believe is already under way — is one of a social system in chronic disrepair” is how the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck put it two years ago. A permanent quasi-stagnation with at best mini-growth rates, explosive inequality, privatization of all and sundry, endemic corruption and plunder, where normal profit expectations get ever lower, a consequent moral collapse (capitalism is more and more linked to fraud, theft and dirty tricks), the West getting weaker and weaker, staggering along as it foments disintegration and crisis in trouble spots on its periphery.

The Nobel Prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman, like Larry Summers, paints a picture of “permanent slump.” Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary – truly no leftie – uses the phrase of “secular stagnation” as a self-evident truth – meaning that the long centuries of dynamic capitalist growth could come to an end.

The renowned economist Robert J Gordon has also investigated in a much-discussed paper whether – at least in the USA – “economic growth is over.” Growth rates took on dynamic pace in 1750, reached breakneck speed in the mid-20th century and have since gone down in successive periods. The great innovations that bring both productivity progress and growth – they may be history: “The growth of productivity … slowed markedly after 1970.” The third industrial revolution, with computerization and concomitant labour saving, also demonstrated its essential effects between 1960 and the late 1990s but has practically come to a standstill since the noughties. Despite superficial impressions, the past 15 years may have produced practically no more genuinely productive innovations. “Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labour productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.”

In his latest book The End of Normal, economist James K. Galbraith plays a similar tune and even goes one step further. The era of prosperity between 1850 and 1970 has anchored in the economist fraternity the unspoken certainty that constant growth is “normality” but stagnation and crisis “the exception.” Galbraith now suspects: “Whatever worked in times gone may well no longer work today.”

Even if Robert Gordon’s thesis about a declining dynamics in innovation is not entirely right it might well be the case that today’s innovations no longer serve the prosperous nature of capitalism as a whole but have rather ambivalent effects. Above all, one of their effects is that jobs are destroyed without new ones replacing them. The new digital technologies mainly serve the purpose of reducing costs and winning new markets at the cost of older firms. Here the current period is distinct from earlier phases of innovation: whereas, in earlier times, ‘creative destruction’ in the process of innovation got rid of old and often poor jobs (as in agriculture) but huge amounts of new and often better ones arose (as in the car industry), so now innovations bring higher joblessness for one part and, worse, more precarious jobs for the other part of the labour force. The cumulative income of the man on the street thereby comes under increasing pressure and heads irredeemably downwards.

My speculative interest in techno-fascism arises out of a shared sense of the possibility that capitalism may merely trundle on:  low to zero growth rates, growing structural unemployment, declining living standards, increasing inequality and the erosion of social security. The reason I regard this possibility as dystopic, that is potentially leading to dystopian outcomes, relates to digital technology as the remaining locus of innovation within the economy and the possibility for social control which it portends.

Really interesting project by Phoebe Moore:

See below a call for panels and papers for a section in the EISA
conference, Izmir, Turkey, 7-10 September 2016.

The section seeks panels and papers on alternatives to capitalism, and how
we might achieve them, both within the capitalist present and on the route
to a post-capitalist society. We welcome papers on explicit contestation of
capitalism through varyingly autonomous forms of struggle as well as
futurist, anti-proprietary or gift culture movements, survivalism,
cooperatives, DIY culture, permaculture, experimentation with cybernetics
and post-humanist ideals, as well as revived institutional interests in

The deadline for proposals is 8 January 2016 and must be done online
through the EISA conference tool website –

Please feel free to contact us first to discuss informally ahead of
submitting proposals:

David Bailey ( and Phoebe Moore (

Section title: Mapping Alternative Routes out of Capitalism

The critical study of global capitalism and the hegemony of neoliberalism
are both central to the study of international relations and international
political economy. Research has focused less, however, on questioning how
(if at all) we might go beyond capitalism. This is despite global
capitalism remaining dangerously unstable, not least because the global
economic crisis that began in 2008 continues to linger without any obvious
resolution to it. The aim of this section, therefore, is to bring together
those with an interest in the rise of alternatives at varied positions
along the ideological spectrum; mapping, studying, theorising,
highlighting, judging and assessing practices which form contemporary
alternatives to, and problems for, global capitalism. This includes
pathways in local, regional and global contexts. In particular, we note two
emerging types of response, each of which expose the ever-present
possibility and presence of sometimes surprising and contradictory routes
outside of capitalism, as well as raising the question of technology in
contemporary social change.

On the one hand, we see various modified projects seeking alternative
routes to social justice and rights: futurist, anti-proprietary or gift
culture movements, survivalism, cooperatives, DIY culture, permaculture,
experimentation with cybernetics and post-humanist ideals, as well as
revived institutional interests in wellbeing. On the other hand, we see the
explicit contestation of capitalism through varyingly autonomous forms of
struggle: Occupy, the indignados, the Greek grassroots projects, Rojava,
and, then, the electoral manifestation of some of these trends within
Syriza, Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, and Jeremy Corbyn.

Section convenors: David Bailey ( and Phoebe Moore (

Submissions to be made here:

Deadline for submissions: 8 January 2016

Conference website and more details:

Earlier today I started reading Blacklisted, an account of the extensive blacklisting in the construction industry that was exposed by an investigation by the Information Commissioner. For those unfamiliar with the case:

In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) exposed details of a large-scale surveillance operation run by a company called The Consulting Association.  This company collated files on thousands of construction workers, as well as academics and journalists, and sold the information to 44 construction companies.  The Director of The Consulting Association, Ian Kerr, was fined just £5,000 and all 44 companies escaped without penalty or punishment.

Many of these workers had their lives ruined, unable to find employment in the construction industry, blacklisted for their trade union activities or for raising health and safety concerns.

The thought I can’t shake is how archaic the technology used to implement this blacklist was. A man in an office effectively kept a ring binder with names, updated via tips from aggrieved employers supplemented by newspaper cuttings from the radical press.

I can’t be the only person who’s had the idea of algorithmic blacklisting: using social media data and natural language processing to flag up ‘problematic’ workers in order to place them on a blacklist i.e. replacing newspaper cuttings with big data.  How would we even know if this technology was implemented?

See below for comments by the Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in this article that are by now rather familiar. This notion can be formulated in many different ways but at root it seeks to redeem ‘free-market capitalism’ by agreeing with leftist critics and disowning the excesses of the last few decades, denouncing them as the result of a perverse corporatism which we now need to overcome:

Instead of blaming capitalism for inequality and environmental degradation, Mackey suggests that we should look at the actions of governments. Departing from the dominant idea that states have retreated from the market over the past three decades, Mackey argues states have become more interventionist than ever, and that in the process they have “fostered a mutant form of capitalism called crony capitalism” that is to blame for many of the problems societies face today. Mackey does not see crony capitalism as “real” capitalism. Instead it is a product of big government in which politicians trying to preserve their cushy jobs develop symbiotic, parasitic relationships with businesspeople too lazy or unimaginative to compete successfully in the marketplace. In Mackey’s story, crony capitalism has been exacerbated by the rising power of the financial sector and shareholder value ideology — the idea that firms are nothing more than a stream of assets designed to maximize profits for shareholders. Mackey argues that this obsession with greed and profits has “robbed most businesses of their ability to engage and connect with people” and has created “long-term systemic problems” that destroy profitability and that can be deeply damaging to people and to the planet.

It might be confirmation bias on my part but I feel like I’m seeing this sentiment expressed with ever greater frequency. It becomes sinister when you consider it alongside the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the politics of austerity and the disturbingly post-democratic direction of European politics. Are we seeing the emergence of the cultural formation which will accompany the final and formal subordination of the social democratic state to the market economy?

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the bookshop in Kings Cross while waiting for the Eurostar and came across this disturbing book:

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 08.50.56

Given I was on my way to a much needed holiday, I didn’t buy the book at the time, intrigued though I was by it. I just went on Amazon to finally purchase it and was genuinely surprised to discover that this isn’t the only one:

Product DetailsProduct Details

The author is a psychologist at Oxford who seems to be carving out a media career as Dr. Psychopath. However there are also many other texts with ‘psychopath’ in the title which intrigue me. Many seem to be self-published texts offering advice on avoiding manipulation by ‘psychopaths’. Others are confessional texts of various sorts. Whereas others seem to be popular science books which, I imagine, likely come close to the territory of Kevin Dutton’s books at points.

A very interesting looking conference being organised by someone I know from asexuality studies:

International Conference
Thinking Beyond Capitalism, Belgrade, June 24-26, 2015
Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory

How is it at all possible to make sound statements about contemporary capitalism? How does one adequately diagnose the current state of the economy? Clearly there is no consensus whether the financial crisis which culminated in 2007-2008 should be seen as a symptom of the structural crisis of neoliberal capitalism only, or of capitalism in general. Moreover, one should keep in mind that the term ’crisis’ is itself laden with different ideologems. The talk of ’crisis’ implies the existence of a superior prior state of capitalism, free of any crisis, and that we are now witnessing an extraordinary phase which is alien to the ’normal functioning’ of the system. Should we understand the crisis merely as the means for restructuring the existing system, or as the beginning of an irreversible demise of the current mode of production? Is it possible that the crisis has actually enabled the exacom preservation of the status quo, and has prevented any change? Or was the crisis, on the contrary, the crucial catalyst for the politicization of the otherwise depoliticized actors within late capitalism? We are thus simultaneously exposed to various institutional-reformist suggestions, more or less grounded apologias, and identifications of fundamental contradictions within the capitalist reproduction process.
In The Communist Manifesto Marx argues that capitalism is a social order which arises and subsists in the form of a critique of all alternative orders and subjective dispositions. Capitalism has proven more radical than its competitors: it has destroyed the ancien régime, has rendered all societal bonds flexible and has constantly revolutionized the means of production. It is a system in which ’all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’. To what extent, then, is it even possible to formulate a critique of such societal system, a system that has managed to incorporate critique itself? Can one stage a revolution against the ’revolution’ itself? If capitalism thus emerges as the actual constitutive framework of our thought, how do we begin to think beyond capitalism?
Starting from the assumption that crises are in fact situations which open up space for thought rather than obstruct it, we intend to thematize the following spectrum of problems:

– Difficulties regarding the self-valorization of capital
– Inequalities within the global division of labour and the challenges of (re)distribution
– Reproduction of social classes and forms of domination
– Structural unemployment and the growth of the precariat
– Tensions between market imperatives
– Ideologems of management, esprit d’enterprise…
– The transformed property relations characterizing ’non-material goods’
– Geographical apsects of capitalism (territories, borders, etc.)
– Tensions between the centres, semiperipheries and peripheries of capitalism
– Dangers of climate change
– Competing dimensions of normativity (universal, global, particular, local, singular…)
– Democracies versus authoritarian social orders
– The cultural dimensions of neoliberalism
– Critique of ideology, critical discourse analysis of neoliberalism
– Neoliberal patriarchy and the new feminisms
– The rise and evolution of anti-neoliberal / anti-capitalist movements
– Left, right, and Romanticist anti-capitalism

Organization of the conference

The conference is organized by the Group for the Study of Social Engagement, part of the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade, with the support of the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, Centre for Advanced Studies in Rijeka, Croatia, the Centre for Ethics, Law and Applied Philosophy in Belgrade, and the French Institute in Serbia.
The official language of the conference is English.
Presentations should not exceed 20 minutes.
The Program Committee of the conference will select the presenters based on the submitted abstracts. The book of abstracts will be published by the time of the conference.
Conference applications should be sent only via e-mail to the following address: We kindly ask you to put in your email subject the following title: ’Application: title of the paper’.
The complete application in the .doc, .docx or .pdf format must contain: the title of the presentation, an abstract of up to 200 words and a short biography, in English.
There will be no registration fees. Conference organisers will provide lunch and light refreshments during the conference program. Participants are kindly requested to make their own accommodation and travel arrangements.

Important dates
Application deadline: 10 April 2015

Notification of acceptance: 25 April 2015

Conference dates: 24–26 June 2015

Program Committee 

Petar Bojanić, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade
Laurence Fontaine, CNRS, Centre Maurice Halbwachs/ENS, Paris
Mladen Lazić, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
Toni Prug, Queen Mary University of London
Catherine Samary, Université Dauphine, Paris
G. M. Tamás, Visiting Professor, CEU, Budapest
Mislav Žitko, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb

Lou Bloom is a petty thief, prowling Los Angeles by night while seeking some purpose in his life. He exists on the fringes of society, stealing to survive while also offering himself as an employee prepared to work under any conditions. We see the rejection he must have faced on many occasions, in spite of his ostentatious subservience (“my motto is if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket”) and genuine acceptance of the dogma that demands this of him as a precondition for employment. However a chance encounter on the roadside introduces Lou to the world of LA’s stringers, the freelance video journalists chasing ambulances and assaults, striving for the most lurid footage (“if it bleeds, it leads!”) to buy their way into a local news media concerned for crime reporting above all else. Lou is captivated by what they do, the urgency and action which defines it, leading him to take his first fumbling steps into this occupational world. He rapidly advances, soon revealing himself to lack scruples – putting it mildly – with the film closing at what we can only assume is the beginning of his ascendency to power within the seedy world of TV journalism in LA. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say precisely what he does but it’s not pleasant.

Jake Gyllenhaal is superb throughout (incidentally, wouldn’t he make the perfect Patrick Bateman if American Psycho was ever remade?) and much of the film depends upon the consistency with which his performance sustains the balance between calm self-mastery and the rage we know exists beneath the surface. Too much of either would have detracted from the sheer creepiness of Lou Bloom, a man equally unblinking when blackmailing his employer into sex as when filming a corpse. The only time Lou’s mask slips is when his ambitions are thwarted, with this experience of denial prompting an outburst of rage as disturbing as it is understated. Other than this, the only emotion we see from him is delight, with involuntary smiles only becoming sinister because of context.

It’s this quality that renders the homolies which he delivers throughout the film quite so unsettling – he regurgitates nuggets of wisdom from the online business courses he consumes autodidactically, advising those around him on their negotiating positions and reflecting on the status of his transactions. However in an important way Nightcrawler isn’t about Lou Bloom’s sociopathy, it’s about his calling: he genuinely loves his newfound profession, exhibiting a natural flair and impulse towards self-improvement that combine to facilitate a rapid ascent into TV journalism and an escape from the precarity that had defined his existence heretofore. We only see hints at his previous life, most pointedly in the certainty with which he recognises that his newfound assistant was leaving sex work behind to work for him, but it seems to have been one that left him driven towards ‘bettering himself’ and with a very particular idea of what ‘better’ entails. He is an American success story, as Henry Barnes puts it in the Guardian, with the satire of this being constructed through the careful arrangements of parts rather than simply holding up Lou’s vacuity as an inditement of the America that produced him. Many aspects contribute to the force with which this critique is conveyed, not least of all the incisive assessment of TV journalism and the endemic insecurity which drives a race to the bottom, however without Lou’s fundamental earnestness I don’t think it would work. He seeks self-improvement, to embrace his newly discovered calling and earnestly strives to make a success of himself through it. The moral bankruptcy is contextual, expressed through Lou but not originating in him – satirising the American dream in terms of the immorality it licenses is far from a novel project but I found Nightcrawler a peculiarly gripping and elegantly constructed example of it.

Integral to Harmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration (all references are to this book) is an understanding of cultural responses to acceleration and the role they play in intensifying the acceleration of the pace of life. This is not simply a matter of the valorisation of speed; in fact being satisfied with the identification of such a sentiment would be to restrict our analysis to the most superficial level. Instead what makes social acceleration so culturally loaded is the implications it has for the temporal horizons of human existence. Rosa is concerned with the “motives of action and cultural development”, specifically that of fear and promise, which Weber identified with the Protestant ethic: while he sees these motives as universal, in that they instantiate basic motivational categories of pain and pleasure, he nonetheless holds that “the characteristic feature of modern culture is the connection of those motives with the principles of time efficiency and the related expectations of acceleration” (pg. 178). He identifies what he takes to be a basic fear in modernity:

The generalised unease … namely, that of standing in all realms of existence, as it were, on slipping slopes, i.e., of being irrevocably suspended in a world of growing contingencies, of missing decisive opportunities, or of falling hopelessly behind, operates as the basic fear in the dynamized, mobile society of modernity. Time thus remains existentially scarce even after specifically religious foundations of meaning “die off”. (pg. 178)

The “strict, fastidious time discipline” identified by Weber as the “innerworldy asceticism” of the Protestant ethic was preoccupied by “the imperative of time efficiency, of the intensive usage and valorisation of every minute” (pg 176). To waste time risked one’s possible salvation, a fear that responded to the “torturous question of whether one was chosen and in a state of grace” – given the impossibility of knowing if one was predestined for salvation, particularly given the absence of reassurance from religious authority, arduous time discipline embodied in lifestyle came to function as a proxy for the identification of the elect.  Time discipline came to function as a way of dissipating the fear of damnation. But it also held the promise of salvation, with the imperative to trust in one’s own virtue (coupled with the growing belief in lifestyle as a proxy for virtue) functioning to bridge the gap between a putative predestination and a sense of moral agency in one’s own life.

Under present circumstances, notes Rosa, “there is no longer a promise of peace of mind in the turn to a powerful, reassuring God who is ready to intervene with respect to the contingencies of life” (pg. 178). However he argues that wealth serves as a functional equivalent. Much as the turn to God was motivated by fear of contingencies, the unavoidably uncertain horizons that emerge with the intensification of social change, so too does money come to be seen as a means through which to equip oneself for a future which we by definition cannot know: “In the form of capital, money has taken on the task of transforming indeterminable into determinable complexity” (pg. 179). Money holds out the promise of helping us master contingency. As Rosa puts it, we see the rise of a belief that “having the largest possible amount of money, and hence options, will allow one to appropriately react to future contingencies” (pg. 178).

What has changed is that this newer sense of salvation is imminent rather than transcendent. It promises a mastery of contingency within earthly time rather than a salvation that lies beyond it. This emphasises the continuity of the earth beyond the point of our own death: social life continues after we are gone. This can be responded to in a variety of ways. We might seek to cultivate a stoical equanimity such that we live our lives without attachment and thus lose nothing when we meet our end. We can identify with some greater continuity, seeing ourselves as connected to our broader movement through history as a consequence of our participation in something greater than ourselves: “individual life takes meaning and consolation from conceiving of itself as a link in a long chain that, even if does not amount to a new form of sacral time, at least bridges the gap between a lifetime and the time of the world” (pg. 181). We might also seek to immortalise ourselves through the production of works that survive us: “to leave behind a trace that extends the span of effects one’s own life has far beyond its own duration” (pg. 181).  However the response that Rosa sees as coming to predominate with the transition to late modern times is that of salvation through acceleration:

the idea that an accelerated enjoyment of worldly options, a “faster life,” will once again allow the chasm between the time of life and the time of the world to be reduced. In order to understand this thought one has to keep in mind that the question concerning the meaning of death is indissolubly tied to the question of the right or “good life.” Thus the idea of the good life corresponding to this answer, which historically became the culturally dominant idea, is to conceive of life as the last opportunity, i.e., to use the earthy time span allotted to humans as intensively and comprehensively as possible before death puts a definitive end to it (pg. 181)

On this view the good life is the full life. To live well is to live maximally in relation to social and cultural variety: doing as many things, with as many people, in as many places as we can. This can take a more humanistic form in which “the good life consists first and foremost in the most comprehensive possible development of the talents and potentials of a subject” (pg. 182). However I think there’s a further dimension to this which Rosa oddly seems to ignore in this section despite recognising it in other parts of his analysis: the embrace of speed as a response to a collapse of horizons, the fulfilment that can come from movement without any belief in where we are going, not concerned with self-cultivation or with maximisation but simply with embracing the present and grasping the moment. I think Atari Teenage Riot express this incredibly forcefully in the track I included at the start of this post:

Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow
There is no future in the weastern dreamin’!
We feel it, we must beat’em !
It’s too late to create a new world!
Alternative living it must be given a chance!
Water the problem’s solution! No solution if you can’t use it!
And then I heard the siren of the police!
My blood went up to 90 degrees!
You can’t see white cats in the snow
Oh human being, how low can you go?
Risin’, risin’ to the top
the pills are ready to be dropped
1, 2, 3 and 4
Got the joker shoot the score!

Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it! Speed!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it!
Speed! Just wouldn’t believe it! Speed!
Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed! Speeeed!

Another example of this ethos can be found in the film Spring Breakers. As I wrote about it at the time, “the private catharsis of drinks, drugs and sex is made public during ‘spring break’ and the film portrays the nihilistic collapse into a perpetual present which ensues when these are pursued as ends in themselves”. Atari Teenage Riot present an escape from a world they disdain through drugs and movement. Spring Breakers presents an embrace of that world through drugs and movement. What both have in common is an exploration of the perpetual present which ensues when people respond to social acceleration with neither an orientation to self-cultivation (in order to maximise possibilities) or to seek to maximise possibilities in order evade the damage to the self that would be seen to ensue from missing out.

Rosa’s important point about the limitations to self-cultivation and self-maximisation is that the options we forego will tend to increase faster than the ones we choose. As he puts it, “the very same inventions, techniques and methods that permit the accelerated realisation of worldly possibility and hence the increase of the total sum of options realised in a life also multiply the number and variety of realisable options” (pg. 185). In other words, the opportunity costs multiply with the opportunities: in selecting from our available choices, we miss out on the things we do not choose. However where I think Rosa goes wrong is in the assumption that an ethos of maximisation demands mastery – it doesn’t follow that a concern to live maximally necessitates an inability to tolerate the fact that the possibilities we seek to master always grow faster than our actualisation of them. This is where the notion of self-cultivation could be key: could we not conceive of a way of living maximally which seeks to cultivate equanimity in the face of the logic of escalation that Rosa identifies? We might strive to live more richly rather than fully, concerned with the poise which allows us to weave together a maximally diverse life from the endless threads available to (some of) us, not orientated towards a final resolution but instead seeking to let the process unfold more artfully and more dextrously with time.

This week’s George Monbiot column in the Guardian is excellent. It paints a vivid picture of the full scale of corporate capture of the democratic process at a time when the Institute of Directors proclaims a “generational struggle” to defend the “principles of the free-market”:

The corporate consensus is enforced not only by the lack of political choice, but by an assault on democracy itself. Steered by business lobbyists, the EU and the US are negotiating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This would suppress the ability of governments to put public interest ahead of profit. It could expose Britain to cases like El Salvador’s, where an Australian company is suing the government before a closed tribunal of corporate lawyers for $300m (nearly half the country’s annual budget) in potential profits foregone. Why? Because El Salvador refused permission for a gold mine that would poison people’s drinking water.

Last month the Commons public accounts committee found that the British government has inserted a remarkable clause into contracts with the companies to whom it is handing the probation service (one of the maddest privatisations of all). If a future government seeks to cancel these contracts (Labour has said it will) it would have to pay the companies the money they would otherwise have made over the next 10 years. Yes, 10 years. The penalty would amount to between £300m and £400m.

Windfalls like this are everywhere: think of the billion pounds the government threw into the air when it sold Royal Mail, or the massive state subsidies quietly being channelled to the private train companies. When Cameron told the Conservative party conference “there’s no reward without effort; no wealth without work; no success without sacrifice”, he was talking cobblers. Thanks to his policies, shareholders and corporate executives become stupendously rich by sitting in the current with their mouths open.

Ours is a toll-booth economy, unchallenged by any major party, in which companies which have captured essential public services – water, energy, trains – charge extraordinary fees we have no choice but to pay. If there is a “generational struggle to defend the principles of the free market”, it’s a struggle against the corporations, which have replaced the market with a state-endorsed oligarchy.

What confuses me is the unwillingness to make political capital out of these trends. Certainly, something like the TTIP will tend to be abstract and covert (by design) hence rather difficult to describe succinctly. But surely one government locking in another to the privatisation of the probation service through absurdly expensive clauses is rather easier to explain? Let alone massive subsidies to putatively private public services.

Is the malfeasance here not IOTTMCO (intuitively obvious to the most casual observer) and hence rife for exploitation? Is it just a matter of Labour politicians lacking the nerve to repeat the message ad nauseam in the same way the Conservatives have with strivers and skivers? Or has their political socialisation left them having internalised the governance habits of New Labour to such an extent that they can’t imagine abandoning triangulation?

Do you remember compassionate conservatism? It seemed vacuous when promulgated by George Bush pre-9/11 and even more so when David Cameron was going through his ‘hug a husky’ phase pre-crisis. It still seems vacuous now, at the point of its purported resurgence, though much more interestingly so given the broader ideological context within which an increasing number of influential figures within the Republican party are advocating its embrace as a solution to their growing electoral woes. In essence, it still seems to amount to a matter of ‘how do we get people to like us?’ but I think this question takes on an epochal significance in our current situation. Rather than solely being a matter of professional politics, with conservative modernisers seeking to catch up to their third-way predecessors on the centre-left, it comes to encompass an ideological project to rebuild a constituency for neoliberalism as the old one is coming to shatter (particularly demographically in the US), the spectre of populism looms and the prevailing ethical motif of the Thatcher-Reagan settlement (“a rising tide lifts all boats”) comes to seem like a hollow joke.

In this interesting podcast Bill Moyers debates compassionate conservatism with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Leaving aside the noxious absurdity of hearing the president of a hugely influential think tank backed by the richest people and most powerful corporations in America complain about corporate power in Washington, it’s actually quite interesting to hear what he has to say and to use this as a basis to consider the future contours of ideological debate in the US. The think tank system in effect takes responsibility for road testing ideological constructs and providing the intellectual infrastructure for class politics in the country. So I think it’s important to take seriously what this man has to say, without slipping into a lazy conspiratorial mindset which assumes that just because he says it, it’ll be taken up as an organising motif by the Republican party for the next election. But he’s putting forward an ideational construct and seeking material sponsorship for it.

It’s partly a critique of the left, accusing it of monopolising the debate surrounding poverty while offering non-solutions that only serve to harm the people they purport to help. It’s partly a critique of the right, repudiating the quasi-technocratic discourse of the free market right that his own organisation did more than most to promote in American politics. It’s partly a reiteration of tired and familiar themes that serve to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of contemporary conservatism. However I was struck by how coherently it combined the tropes of compassionate conservatism (we need to take hard working families out of the tax system, enthusiastically supporting the safety net for the ‘truly poor’, invocation of a renewed philanthropy and public spiritedness) with the influential notion of Austrian origin that the problem is that contemporary capitalism is not capitalist enough. It’s not convincing because the coherency is only superficial, necessitating the suppression of the obvious structural link between how capitalist contemporary capitalism actually is and the communitarian values that are being sought, as Moyers astutely observes in the case of the Walton. family. But I find it hard to see another strategy that can sustain a constituency for the Republican party in the medium to long term and voter suppression can only go so far in the face of a changing country in which angry white men are an increasingly particular demographic group. The worrying thing is that the Democratic political machine is sufficiently spineless that, in the absence of someone like Elizabeth Warren running, it’s easy to see how the disciplined advocacy of this neo-neoliberalism could actually rob the opposition of any critical standpoint from which to make a case for even minute social change.

There’s a lot of nice responses to this which have been posted on the Bill Moyers website but this is my favourite. You can read the rest of them here. It probably goes without saying that I disagree with everything Arthur Brooks says, not least of all his appropriation of the Dalai Lama as a free market capitalist. But I’m sufficiently interested to read further. I guess my fear is that the glaring holes in his argument are ones which can only be pointed out on the basis of causal inference e.g. clientism and rent seeking are consequences of the principles he embraces rather than exceptions to them, unemployment is generated in part by the accumulated power he gets paid $700k per year to defend etc. The contemporary media environment makes it hard to make arguments of this sort in a sustained way.

Joel Berg
Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger

“Pure Chutzpah”

People, like Arthur Brooks, who proclaim that money can’t buy happiness usually have both. In 2012, Brooks earned $716,908 in total compensation from his American Enterprise Institute position alone. It’s nice that Brooks says that US poverty and inequality are too high, but, in this interview, he again indicates that he opposes every policy that actually reduces them. His claim that minimum wage increases kill jobs has been factually disproven repeatedly. It would be bad enough if he admitted that he opposes wage hikes because they harm his corporate funders, but it’s pure chutzpah to claim that they harm the people who get higher wages.

I also wonder about the potential alliance between a mainstream compassionate conservatism of this form and a populist radical right. Could the ‘moral reformation’ that Brooks calls for be invoked rhetorically against the radical right at opportune moments while nonetheless serving to solidify a ‘small government’ alliance? Would the Tea Party accept this way of talking? I suspect so if the distinction between welfare dependents and the ‘truly poor’ is drawn carefully enough and the proposed solutions to the plight of the latter are presented as a matter of working towards the remission of state intervention rather than entrenching it. The problem is how you sustain this given the inevitable need for some intervention. Compassionate conservatism would come to look a little implausible if support is withdrawn entirely, with all the social consequences that would ensue from this.

I’ve blogged a few times recently about Thomas Piketty and the making of intellectual superstars. I find his elevation to “rock star” status fascinating, not least of all the deeply performative nature of this silly epithet, revealing as it does many interesting trends about the status of intellectuals in contemporary circumstances. The case has become even more fascinating with the alleged takedown of his data in the FT last night:

Now, in a move that has delighted his manifold critics on the right, who view Piketty’s tome as a dangerous, modern-day successor to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the 43-year-old French economist has found himself attracting a less welcome form of attention. The Financial Times has suggested that Piketty’s work contains a series of errors that appear to fatally undermine large parts of his thesis. The normally restrained paper claims that some of the data Piketty uses to support his arguments about yawning inequality in Britain and Europe are dubious or inexplicable. Some of this, the paper suggests, may be down to straightforward transcription errors. More damningly, the FT claims, “some numbers appear simply to be constructed out of thin air”.

The paper goes as far as to suggest its findings are similar to those last year that undermined the work of the Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which analysed the relationship between growth and debt and was subsequently found to have been based on a flawed spreadsheet.

Bloomberg described the claims as a bombshell and there has been no shortage of commentators suggesting the story is huge. Some on the right have also been gleeful, suggesting the FT‘s story will scupper Piketty’s chances of landing a Nobel prize. But, as the dust settles, even many of his critics have been reluctant to claim that Piketty has been left badly wounded by an impenetrable row over the selection and interpretation of data, nor do they accept that the FT‘s claims have done much to damage his over-arching thesis.

Much as I expected, I got 50 pages into the book before getting distracted by other things and haven’t been back to it since. I’m deeply aware of not having read the book when reading the coverage of the FT’s attack. I’m also wondering how many other people commenting upon it have actually read the book in depth. I find myself nodding approvingly at Krugman’s critique of the critique, vaguely aware of feeling ‘my side’ is under attack, despite this being a book I only bought because I was intrigued by all the hype surrounding it. I find the whole Piketty affair fascinatingly strange. It all seems so obviously overblown and yet the issues at stake are clearly consequential. Nonetheless, there’s a subtle theatricality pervading the endless stream of verbiage being generated in response to this book, as if the book could in reality consist of 600 blank pages without making a difference to the sentiments underlying the detailed arguments.

I’m really not very clear about what I do think is going on here, perhaps explaining why I’m so gripped by it, but I’m certain I’ll be rehearsing this in my mind for years to come as a case study for considering the causal power of ideas within social life. I think it illustrates an acceleration of the process by which ideas can find material sponsors, concerned to promulgate a way of understanding a contested phenomena and promote it socially. There’s also something interesting going on about the way in which the meditation of this process by the blogosphere contributes to its rapidity, amplifying certain voices through a dynamic which is superficially democratic (bringing lots of people into the process) but basically exclusionary, given pervasive tendencies (e.g. not having read the actual book for quite understandable reasons) which leaves opinion formation in the hands of Krugman and comparable ‘thought leaders’.

How capitalism survives? A Marxist-Feminist perspective

Call for Papers within the framework of the 11th Historical Materialism Annual Conference ‘How Capitalism Survives’ – 6-9 November 2014 – Vernon Square, Central London

The Historical Materialism annual conference in London has emerged as a pivotal site for critical, engaged, constructive, and provocative scholarship and activism internationally. This is a fitting place for focusing the (re)emergence of Marxist-Feminist historical materialist analysis. Now in our third year at HM, the 2014 Marxist-Feminist stream of the conference is seeking contributions that continue in the tradition of dynamic and original reflections of previous years, and also those that press the boundaries and take on the bold challenges posed by debates old and new.
The question ‘how capitalism survives?’ resonates strongly with a range of feminist critiques on the Left. In the 21st century this question invites us to revisit of the history of capitalism and patriarchy in their myriad entanglements as well as to analyse the daily (re)construction of a globally dominant socio-economic model that thrives on gendered and racial asymmetries.
The Marxist-Feminist stream this year wishes to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms that make the reproduction of capitalism possible in the very sites that constitute an ‘everyday life’ where exploitation and struggle are actualised or forestalled. We are also interested in analysing the continuities, discontinuities and mutations of the capitalism & patriarchy nexus from the age of empire all the way to contemporary neo-colonialisms. Such colonial projects may involve anything from territorially-based extraction of surplus value to the production of individual and collective subjectivities. 
This year’s conference theme hopes to provide an opportunity to think in truly interdisciplinary fashion about how ‘we’ participate in sustaining capitalism as a reality of intersecting modalities of exploitation. To offer just one obvious example, today the exploitation of women by women has become indispensable to sustaining contemporary capitalism as a planetary biopolitics.

On the basis of the above, we invite papers that may address (but are not limited to) the following themes and/or questions, here presented in random order:

•    Critical descriptions of capitalism across Marxism and feminism from feminism’s ‘first wave’ to the present
•    Social reproduction and capitalist transformation: micro and macro-analyses
•    Instances of success and failure in Marxist-Feminist struggles from the 19th to the 21st centuries
•    In what particular ways does the ‘feminisation’ of labour help capitalism survive?
•    Are new concepts and methodologies needed to understand women’s roles in capitalism’s ways of overcoming the recent crisis?
•    How do the crises of capitalism help generate or overcome otherness (understood in gendered and/or racial terms)?
•    Women and queer subjects’ roles in the rise of new capitalist economies and in the assumed decline of Western capitalism
•    Homophobia and homonationalism before and after 9/11
•    Moving borders, regenerating boundaries: states, bodies, temporality
•    Ecosocialism, ecofeminism, ecology: narratives of change or scripts of subjugation? 
•    Revolution and reform in the theories of Marxist-feminism
•    Racism, femonationalism, Islamophobia: the bigger picture
•    Intersections of Marxism, feminism, critical race and postcolonial theories
•    Sexual assault, rape and resistance 
•    Women in contemporary liberation struggles
•    Marxist feminism and intersectionality theories
•    Women’s art, film, music literature: subversion or reproduction of capitalist relations of production? 
•    Feminism and the reproduction of the capitalist art world
•    Women in the communist/socialist tradition: Luxemburg, Zetkin, Kollontai, and others
•    Welfare and the political economy of care
•    Contemporary sexual politics: resistance to or empowerment of capitalism?
•    Violence, fascism, Marxism and Feminism
•    Separatism or participation? The case for the 21st century
•    Feminism and the institutions of capitalism
•    Gender, race and international migration
•    Uniting forces: what does an interdisciplinary Marxist feminist theory would look like?

Paper proposals should be max 200 words. When submitting your proposal, please indicate the theme to which your paper could contribute. 

Please note that we welcome panel proposals. When you submit a panel proposal, please send an abstract of the general theme of the panel (max 300 words) together with the abstracts of the individual papers in the panel. For individual paper proposals, it is helpful to indicate the theme (above) to which your paper could contribute. This will help us to compose the panels. Panels and individual papers should be submitted by June 1st to: 

Please be aware that the conference is self-funded; therefore we are unable to help with travel and accommodation costs.

The stream is organised by: Abigail Bakan, Angela Dimitrikaki, Sue Ferguson, Sara Farris, Genevieve LeBaron and Nina Power.