by Phil Jones
As part of his ongoing project on employability for Autonomy, funded by CHASE, Phil Jones is writing a monthly blog fleshing out the research field. This is his second entry.
During the dot-com boom, vast sums of money poured into speculative (and largely unsuccessful) ventures, as the economy came to be dominated by what Karl Marx calls ‘fictitious capital’. In Capital Vol.3, Marx describes its form as a ‘promissory note’ – its capital value ‘pure illusion’, ‘a mere phantom of the mind’.1 It is this dual logic of promise and illusion shared by self-branding and finance that I wish to explore over the course of this post. Before doing so, it is worth first glossing Marx’s theory of value.
As many of you are already aware, Marx regards labour as the sole source of capitalist value, achieved in the productive process as the labourer sells their labour power to the capitalist for a wage worth less than the value of their day’s work, thus generating a surplus for the capitalist. We can see this process in Marx’s general formula for capital M-C-M1, whereby the first M represents money invested by the capitalist in materials, machines and labour; the C represents the value generated by the labourer as they produce the commodity, which, all being well in the market, leads to M1 – the sale of the commodity and the realisation of surplus value.2 The surplus is then reinvested and the cycle begins afresh on a larger scale.
With the rise of finance over the late twentieth century – and certainly during the heady days of the dot-com boom, the dominant source of capitalist profits moved from the circuit M-C-M1 to M-M1. Marx refers to this as ‘fictitious capital’ because lacking the ‘C’ – the labourer and the production of value, the dynamic of the economy is largely defined by illusory promises that suppose the creation of value at a later date, but fetishistically act as though they presently contain value.3 During this period – and arguably since the early 1970s, production has taken a backseat in advanced capitalist economies, as capital has favoured the short term gains available in stocks, securities and derivatives – paper bills that promise a return with interest. Not only capitalists took to financial markets, but workers, too, with one estimate suggesting that during the dot-com boom as many as 100 million Americans were investing in stocks and shares.4
In various other ways, workers of the late twentieth century were co-opted into financial markets. With the decline of production, what Robert Brenner refers to as ‘the long downturn’ of the global north, full-time, secure employment has similarly disappeared, forcing a large proportion of the population to take on private debt, that is, to promise their future earnings to cover present costs. More accurately perhaps, the pressure to promise one’s future has been encouraged by banks and financial institutions eager for liquidity to fuel securities and derivatives markets, as the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis revealed. In short, workers at the turn of the twenty-first century were being versed in the virtues of the financial economy and, as a consequence, were getting used to promising away their futures.
These trends are evidently registered in the writings of early self-brand advocates. In an uncanny reflection of Marx’s definition of fictitious capital, Tom Peters – as quoted in the previous post, claims that a self-brand is ‘a promise of the value you’ll receive’. Indeed, Peters’ definition of self-branding could equally describe the promise made by a stock or security: invest and you will receive value at a later date. The semantic slippage between different meanings of ‘value’ notwithstanding, we can see that self-branding, with its emphasis on the illusory and promissory, reflects the logics that characterise financial activities. Indeed, if we remove the unnecessarily elaborate terminology of ‘self-branding’, we see that its definition merely extends the kinds of activities already asked of workers in a financialized economy. Much like, say, a debt contract, a brand, whether corporate or personal, promises a particular outcome, orienting expectations about the future; in the most general sense, it represents a kind of contract between two or more economic actors.
If, as Nietzsche asserts, modernity creates a subject capable of promising, then periods of financialization refigure such a capacity as an imperative.5 The rise of self-branding, encouraging workers to promise their capacity to labour, is at least to some degree the corollary of this imperative. This, however, is not the full story and only offers a hint of how self-branding has become an ideological motif of financial capitalism. In the next post, I will move away from self-branding literature to consider more carefully how a diminished production sector created in part by financialization has shaped the conditions necessary for such an ideology to flourish.
1. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume III, Penguin Classics 1991, pp 597-603
2. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Penguin Classics 1990, pp250-251
3. See Karl Marx, Capital Volume III, Penguin Classics 1991, pp516. For a more thorough treatment it is worth reading chapter 25 ‘Credit and Fictitious Capital’ pp525-542
4. Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, New Press 2003, p187
5. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Vintage Books 1989, 58-59.
Phil is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex focusing on cultural representations of the digital economy. Alongside his report on employability for Autonomy, he is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.