PHILIPPINES: Master’s tools (Notes on cynicism, labor, finance capital, and the art industry)

Friday 14 February 2014

Date: 11 February 2014

Type: Opinion Column

Keywords: Economic crisis


The current economic crisis under global capitalism is worsening at a speed that even its most shrewd and sneaky economic managers have not succeeded in slowing it down. But its cultural managers scattered in key institutions still talk of the existing order as if it were a result of some divine ordination. For them, the present can only be deemed as the end of a historical progression that has reached its ultimate peak so that an alternative vision can only be a threat to civilization.

Of Progressive High Priests

Nowadays, the pseudo-progressive is supposed to be that figure who is critical of pain and humiliation suffered by the poor. And misery’s main culprit? The current system’s mechanisms of exclusion that exposes poor people to all sorts of risks that it can only adapt or adjust to. In the pseudo-progressive’s head, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the capitalist system. The problem is managerial in nature, and thus a matter of managing sensibilities of people who are not ‘similarly situated,’ as it were. Cultural high priests slam capitalism no longer for exploitation but exclusion, as though a break with the appropriation of surplus value had taken place at some point, unbeknownst to both capitalists and laboring people themselves.

They concede that capitalism breeds risks and makes labor vulnerable to all sorts of abuses. But they won’t ever say that this risk-ridden system is founded on exploitation, that the economically vulnerable are in fact exploited; and that they form a class that still struggles for another economic system. They never paint the poor as a fighting class; and in a funny way, they sometimes refer to the beneficiaries of this exploitative system as the ‘non-poor.’ They scorn the word “victim” and prefer “survivor.” Why, after all, capitalist triumphalism posits that history ends here where capitalism reigns. By no means can it victimize anyone as we are bound to survive it forever.

Cynicism’s Obscene Double

There is a good deal of irony to be found in the cynic’s avowed mastery of the system’s social ills. It is a claim that comes with a strong warning against a belief that the same ills can be eliminated by collective struggle against the system. To back up their charge against revolutionary endeavors, cynics use constructions that are usually limited to caricatures of revolutionaries as an unthinking, state-power fixating, and personality-cult devoting bunch. For them, the history of socialism’s past defeats far outweighs the need to realize an alternative to a brutal world being run by corrupt and filthy rich functionaries. The obscene double of this cynical rejection of belief is the uncanny truth that the cynic believes more than anyone else in the system that s/he him/herself critiques. That is why the cynical impulse is as unmistakable as the naked affirmation of hegemony.

In its full swing, cynicism in the art industry shifts the artistic question from “what can we make that is new” to “how can we make do with what we have?” (1) This so-called new “engine of artistic practice” based on innovation and eclecticism is not exclusive to the art field. Parallel characterizations of the present such as “post-production” and “the end of work” in “post-industrial” societies were constructed to primarily explain the crisis of monopoly capitalism. The consequences of these notions are enormously pernicious for the current understanding of the “working class” as a revolutionary class.

Detour to Class Politics

The aforementioned assumptions foreclose any possibility to see the working class as a class, and simply because they have disappeared in most capitalist societies in the West. If recognized at all in neo-colonial societies hijacked by client states, a contracted and diluted vision of the working class prevails. No longer seen as a class with a definite political program that will usher in new relations of production, discourses on labor revolve around how to inhabit the existing capitalist system. Slogans that speak of the “inclusion to the excluded” and “fair wages to workers” hilariously paint a “classless” society made up of a multitude of economically vulnerable beings.

Without reference to capitalist exploitation, any discussion of oppression and suffering of the poor closes in on itself, and can only project reconciliatory ideas for the exploited. It simultaneously suggests the possibility of capitalism acquiring a human face, in which case, a construction of a safer capitalist system for everyone is pragmatically preferable than a system overhaul. This is why governments, NGOs and other humanitarian organizations are proud of their poverty reduction programs. As to why this is nothing more than a containment strategy is easily exposed in ways that the culture of liberal democracy would deal with other forms of oppressive structures. We never say “reduce sexism!” or reduce racism!” because we rightly demand their elimination. But it seems that the politics of political correctness, which largely defines pseudo-progressive politics nowadays, easily drops its own claims to the use of politically correct language in its full embrace of “poverty reduction.”

Class is not seen as a structuring principle that cuts across racial, ethnic, and gender oppression. Instead, liberal progressives flatten out the contradictions and concrete social antagonisms that inhere in the very same oppressive structures they want to eliminate by positing “intersectionality” as the only viable horizon of interpretation to understand and resolve oppression. One can tell that the class war is at its height when the state itself naturalizes poverty by avowing that it can only be reduced. The state does so to cover up for poverty’s basis: social inequality. To argue that poverty can only be reduced whether in the short or the long term is to assume that social inequality is a function of nature. A biologized version of social class makes it easy for governments worldwide to subject peoples to the most brutal conditions of existence. To talk about the “end of class struggle” and the “obsoleteness of class war” while refusing to eliminate poverty is a travesty.

En Route to the Cynical Path of Finance Capital

As things stand today, the aftermath of the liberal triumph—which promised art its much-vaunted autonomy from social institutions that had tended to dwarf art by making it a mere function of its operations—has yet to redeem art from institutionalized artistic activity that has made the former a mere signifier of class privilege and luxury. Such autonomy only promoted a preference for “non-political art” or more accurately, a “generic politics [which replaces] ideology with management.” (2). But more is at stake in this intervention than pouncing on art’s culpability. There is a necessary connection to be made between institutionalized art practice and the financial blackhole.

Let us begin with a rudimentary definition of finance as a symbol. Finance is the most abstract symbolization of the economy that has its roots in industrialization. Under capitalism, the accumulation of value or the process of valorization entails the application of human skills. In the age of industrialization, the production of value still necessitated the production of actual goods. Hence, the capitalist needed to produce useful things in order to produce abstract value. In the age of finance, however, the production of goods is no longer necessary to realize accumulation. Instead, accumulation itself directly targets its monetary goal by wringing value from the circulation of money. (3)

The acceleration of financial flows and the accumulation of value necessitate the destruction of concrete things and resources, and the body itself. The acceleration of profits from financial flows results in the “elimination of the real world.”(4). Finance capitalism is not only dependent on the real economy’s exploitation of labor through production. The accumulation of profits through the acceleration of financial flows entails heightened forms of exploitation. This is why, under global capitalism, labor whether paid or wageless, must be contractualized, brutalized, and destroyed everywhere in the world. The few who profit from the virtualization of life and intelligence through accelerated financial flows cannot do so without destroying actual human lives. Profit accumulation and the disposability of human lives are mutually dependent. Financial speculations on oil, weapons of mass destruction, and even speculations on insurances and debts incurred by people themselves are a few examples of the means to accelerate financial flows precisely through the promotion of war and human misery.

Meanwhile, an interesting twist is happening in Spain’s current art context that sheds light on the privatization of profits from finance and its impact on the consumption of “culture” and art production. On September 1, 2012, the Spanish government imposed a 13% increase on cultural tax (from 8%-21%). Cultural producers and managers took the streets to protest what they believed was a sabotage on cultural production and consumption. It was only until a month ago that the Spanish government lowered the tax on culture to 10% , but only exclusive to the sale or purchase of art works. No doubt, state intervention means to facilitate people’s consumption of culture through increased spending on art works.

But the command to buy and thus enjoy art this 2014 is addressed to a particular class. Spanish visual artist Paloma Polo, her own country’s representative to the 55th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennial, makes a case for the connection between money laundering and art consumption. The super rich who grace international art fairs in Miami, Sau Paulo, Switzerland, London, and Mexico are given the opportunity to consume art works produced by Spanish visual artists with lower tax rates this year. This means that money earned by the super rich through their engagement in finance capital can now be invested on art works (read: laundered) after all, the global market is by now too saturated for super profits from finance to be reinvested in production, much less, for workers benefits. The state, in this context, provides the proper, legal, and the finest investment for the loot of finance capitalists.

Super-profits from finance (a transformation of production into a symbol that entails not only the destruction of products but of bodies and lives) have to transform itself into something more culturally acceptable. The process necessitates the state to act as broker for abstracted crimes against humanity to be literally seen as concrete works of art. That the increase in spending on art products through lower taxes is encouraged and realized as actual transactions in the art industry proves that the rich are getting richer even in one of the most badly hit economies like Spain.

Finance capital, a species of capital that can only accelerate and accumulate without producing something new is an economic logic that is very well refracted in the dominant segment of the art field whose claim on art, as mentioned above, is no longer based on making of something new but in making do with what already exists. Thus, cynicism in the art industry is not unique to itself. Rather, it is one that dovetails capitalist relations of production in our age. The same can be said about the cynicism of so-called progressives who smoke out soft critiques against the current structural violence of capital which, at no other point in history has renders Karl Marx’s immiseration thesis ever so clearly, especially in view of the accumulation of super profits through finance capital: “But all methods of the production of surplus value are at the same time methods of accumulation, and every extension of accumulation becomes, conversely, a means for the development of these methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse.” (5) One must add that the production of art/knowledge has been, among others, a tool of the master to maintain its otherwise crumbling house.

Can the master’s tools be used to destroy the master’s house to overcome capital’s deadly inertia? The situation in which capital accumulates because workers’ wages must grow worse, is the same compelling reason that art, as a fatal weapon of class war, must always confront anew. ###

Cf ,Nicolas Bourriaud. 2005. Postproduction. p.8. New York: Lukas & Sternberg. Cf. Staal, Jonas. 2012.

This explication follows from the discussion of Franco Birardi in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. 2012. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). Birardi argues this point in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. 2012. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

(5)Cf. Marx, Karl (2007): Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: The Process of Capitalist Production. Volume I, part 2. Cosimo Inc., pp. 708-70.

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