Review of Martijn Konings, Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason

Review of Martijn Konings, Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Reviewed by Samuel Kirwan

This is, inescapably, a time of socio-economic ‘crisis’. Across the countries of Euro-America, discussion of the relationship between economy and the social, whether in a normative or critical mode, seems trapped by the long shadow of the ‘financial crash’ of 2007-8, and more immediately by the ripping apart of the social protections through ‘austerity’ measures. In this context, Martijn Konings has offered a series of interventions (2015, 2016a, 2016b) urging a re-orientation of the ‘progressive’ critical gaze towards enduring economic imaginaries and the emotional and relational dynamics of everyday economic activity.

Building upon these, this book seeks to bring these interventions together into a broad-ranging critique of socio-economic theory, arguing that its dominant tools are not up to understanding the neoliberal ordering of the post-crisis world. Due to a misguided belief in a state that might extricate itself from finance and impose order upon runaway markets, ‘progressive’ observers have failed to engage with how the state is fully and inescapably embedded in forms of neoliberal economic governance that had already incorporated and prepared for the crisis and its aftermath. In so doing, they have been somewhat complicit, he argues, in the deepening inequalities of the post-crisis period.

The book is the first in a new series co-edited with Konings’ co-author Melinda Cooper, whose own recent text The Neoliberal family, as noted below, explores similar arguments to this book, albeit in a different field. As suggested in the title of the book, among Konings’ other collaborators, another prominent voice here is that of Lisa Adkins, whose work on ‘speculative time’ of neoliberalism (Adkins, 2016, 2018) has presented a serious challenge to prevailing orthodoxies in the study of debt, finance and markets, inasmuch as these retain an unreflexive and unquestioned critique of ‘speculation’ as a site of social destruction.

Speculation is perhaps the organising term for this book; I will try below to explain the specific role it plays with reference to my own work in the field of debt. But it is useful first to play out Konings’ identification of two ‘Kantian leaps’ – moments in which complexity and nuance are sought out only to reaffirm ordering structures of reality – that provide some context for why these practices of speculation are so important.

The first Kantian leap, that of the theorist, is partly explained by a failure to see the second, that of the subject in its everyday encounters with money. In the first case, the ‘leap’ represents a failure of imagination. Whilst tentatively delving its hands into contingency and ‘non-foundationalism’, socio-economic theory nonetheless returns, without fail, to an ‘idealist essentialism’ and ‘regulative fantasy’ (24) when it comes the key question; namely the nature and value of money. Heterodox economic theory introduces a welcome pluralism into considerations of financial value, emphasising the ways in which money is inextricable from the social relations and interactions that produce it. Yet smuggled into this is the positing of this same ‘social’ as a stable, durable ‘ground’ for economic value. Money seemingly unmoored from any such social basis – namely that generated through speculative consideration of possible futures – is rendered suspicious.

The idea that money is ‘grounded’ in this way leads to a view of financial value as ‘elastic’: it can be stretched, but ultimately it will snap. The ‘crisis’ of 2007-8, under such terms, has been understood as being triggered by the stretching of value to breaking point in the sub-prime crisis. The necessary response to this, it would seem, is increased regulation of speculative lending; no longer should credit be offered in such reckless manner, entirely un-anchored from predictable futures.

It is indeed hard to argue with the observation that while the broader social sciences have been happy to accept a ‘non-foundational’ approach, incorporating Deleuze, Butler and others into their theoretical framings and core curricula, they have been far more cautious about accepting the non-foundationalism of money. Nervous, that is, of abandoning the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fictitious’ forms of finance, if not always their work, at least in their political commitments, which remain shaped by a Keynesian belief in the necessity of the state as a regulatory force upon speculative financial activity.

As previous readers of Konings and Cooper will know, is not Keynes that the book sees hiding behind every corner, but rather Polanyi. What Konings finds in Wolfgang Streeck, Nancy Fraser and others is an unthinking allegiance to the Polanyian ‘dis-embedding’ narrative, namely the idea that capital ‘dis-embeds’ social relations, rendering them unanchored and unmoored. In The Neoliberal Family, Cooper describes, among a ‘certain kind of left’, a conflation of capitalism with the ideology of the free market. Once one assumes that capital proceeds as a ‘force of social disintegration’, the only form of resistance is to seek to strengthen traditional forms of connection and respect: family, hierarchy or class. (Cooper, 2018:14)

The argument of both is that the ‘dis-embedding’ narrative not only fails to explain the nature and movement of capitalism, it has done enormous damage to our capacities to combat the workings of neoliberalism and the specific amplification and redistribution of risks it creates. As we have seen with critiques of neoliberalism from the ‘alt’ or traditional right, challenges to ‘neoliberalism’ are perfectly capable of deepening power structures so long as they remain tied of a normative and conservative politics seeking to re-embed social relationships and the true value of money.

The problem with ‘progressive’ perspectives rooted in heterodox economics is that they miss, Konings argues, the way in which the subject themselves performs their own ‘Kantian Leap’. Echoing the turn to theological accounts of money (see Goodchild, 2010), he notes how, in the secular absence of any universal reference point to guarantee meaning and value, the subject attributes an absolute ground to money itself. However much the fantasy of money as a ‘neutral’ actor is just that, a fantasy, this projection has a terrific emotional force. As Konings had argued elsewhere:

it is precisely because money is nothing in and of itself that there is tremendous danger in attributing inherent powers to it, looking to it for magical free lunches and handouts – and that is why it requires absolute submission and commitment. (2016a, 92)

The manifestation of this ‘absolute submission and commitment’ is a drive to purification. In its most recognisable form, this is directed towards cleansing society of financial corruption – what we now recognise in the refrain ‘drain the swamp’. But also, more interestingly, it is directed towards everyday financial practices, and a particular twisting of what is the heart of the book: how the interplay of speculative acts generates the endogenous ordering of systems.

The importance of speculation for Konings lies in a recognition that the subject is always already involved in various considerations of potential futures. That is, we are always considering what might happen in the future, and how we might act now to shape and/or prepare for such circumstances. These considerations are shaped and affected by the legacy of our, and others’, previous speculative acts, most notably where individuals have entered into credit/debt relationships. The acquisition of capital in the present through the anticipation of future earnings binds any future speculations towards the servicing of those repayments. Furthermore, we watch, observe and consider the speculative practices of others; we consider how our own speculative practices might affect theirs. As is well known, taking on debt in a ‘trustworthy’ manner might cause a lender to offer more credit, but borrowing in a reckless manner, so long as it amplifies the lender’s exposure to the borrower’s future, might achieve the same result.

Konings is not offering a critique of speculation, or offering a critique of that critique; he is seeking to give weight and texture to speculative acts. A flat surface of speculations would be of little interest; the book shows how the performativity and productivity of speculation are indicators of the exercise of power. Expanding to a larger scale, we can see how, for certain actors, speculative mobilisations of potential futures are also acts of bending the conditions of future actions to their own interests. What such actors hold is greater ‘leverage’: ‘control or influence operating imminently’. Konings thus positions leverage as a measure of the power certain forms of speculation have to shift the framing conditions of other speculative acts; it is the model of a form of power that maintains and shapes systems from within.

Following Elena Esposito, the book identifies Luhmannian systems theory as the guiding spirit behind such a model of ‘endogenous’ ordering of subjects, institutions and states. Indeed, whether this book adds to Konings’ arguments made elsewhere will depend on whether the reader buys into this specific systems-theoretical framing. What this perspective does lead to is a clear framework for understanding the ‘bailouts’ as a fully normalised practice of neoliberal governance. Under a model of risk-oriented economic governance, the state had become fully incorporated into the world of finance through its role as guarantor of the major nodal points (i.e. the major banks) in a system of generalised speculation.

Yet I am more interested in the re-framing of ‘austerity’ the book proposes. In a dynamic of necessary speculation with an ongoing commitment to a ‘purification’ of money, it is the subject’s past financial investments that become sites of commitment and submission. On the one hand, this explains the enduring popular support for ‘austerity’ measures that have laid a trail of staggering destruction across the UK. The emotional resonance of the narrative that the nation must honour the repayment of debts accrued during the ‘boom’ years is hard to shake. Yet it explains also how, despite the misery they can create, it remains unimaginable that one might simply ignore a credit agreement; this would be to presume (however accurate this might be) that the money came from nowhere. However deleterious or discriminatory this agreement was, any future speculations must be bent to the absolute submission to honouring it. It is precisely the emotionally resonance of this narrative that is used by collectors in the UK to encourage debtors to prioritise ‘consumer’ debts over those that lack this narrative, principally Council Tax arrears.

This would seem to lead socio-economic critique into a cul-de-sac; any challenge to economic governance, or law, is futile without an engagement with the economic imaginary that sustains them. So let me propose another. The concept of the ‘jubilee’ incorporates the various models through which debts are ‘written off’ en masse. It is a concept that contains both an alternative incorporation of the state into economic governance and an alternative economic imaginary. In the first case, this would be a model that reverses the selective ability to ignore one’s past financial speculative actions, organised as this is around degrees of leverage. In the second, it would be an imaginary oriented to the image of the clean slate: however much your past financial actions might define you, there must always be room to one day be free of them.

References

Adkins, L. (2016). “Speculative Futures in the Time of Debt”. The Sociological Review. Vol 65, Issue 3, pp. 448 – 462

Adkins, L (2018) The Time of Money. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cooper, M. (2018) Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. New York, NY: Zone Press

Esposito, E. (2011) The Future of Futures: The Time of Money in Financing and Society. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing

Konings, M. (2015) The Emotional Logic of Capitalism: What Progressives Have Missed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Konings, M. (2015) State of Speculation:  Contingency, Measure, and the Politics of Plastic Value The South Atlantic Quarterly Vol.114(2), pp.251-282.

Konings, M (2016a) “The Spirit of Austerity.” Journal of Cultural Economy. Vol.9(1), pp.86-100.

Konings, M. (2016b) Governing the system: Risk, finance, and neoliberal reason. The European Journal of International Relations. Vol.22(2), pp.268-288.

Konings, M. (2018) Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Peebles, G. (2012). Whitewashing and leg‐bailing: on the spatiality of debt. Social Anthropology, Vol.20(4), pp.429–443.

Samuel Kirwan is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow and Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Bristol. His research focuses upon experiences of debt and debt advice.