Entry #2 22.09.2021

PANIC: Economy Past its Limit

Owen Steinberger

Illustration: Gustave Doré “The Apparition”, Met Museum

After reading for some time, being absorbed in the play of language, when we close our book, we might look up to see a room we no longer recognize. Transformations have taken place in our absence; our eyes have already adjusted to the page, and we will often need to readjust to differences in lighting, and dimensions, with an involuntary reorientation of the pupil and engagement of different photoreceptors. It is as if we have gone out of focus and are sliding back into place, rather than our image of the room. But the room itself has also changed. Not only has the planet been rotating and “sliding” through space at extreme speeds (which go unnoticed as constants, not unlike gravity, conspicuous in their absence only in our dreams, in this instance reading being a kind of day-dreaming) altering the coordinates of the room, our body not excluded of course; there has also been at work, and unavoidably so, the deleterious effects of time, the slow work of decay and death. Every chair, phone, piece of fruit, etc. has suffered a blow, however infinitesimal, approaching the limit of 0. Or rather it has suffered itself in the effort of maintaining itself, in overriding a certain contradiction. This contradiction is briefly crystallized when we notice the difference from the room we thought we knew before. For a moment we can feel the sliding of the world. The sensation passes as quickly as it had arrived, and is in a sense illusory, often ignored or forgotten. But the truism that (space) time has passed also casts a shadow. Perhaps, when looking up from our reading, within this brief opening and on the rarest of occasions, we might catch a glimpse of this shadow, and—we may panic.

Is someone there? Or something? In a moment of panic, nothing is certain. Exploring the room, we may find nothing, and no one. But the grip of fear remains invincible. Its mechanism is out of our reach, and beyond any logic or rationality. We may never be able to shake the feeling – the absurd, undeniable feeling – that we have just seen something like a dead body, or even death itself.

What are we afraid of?

It will not be reassuring to reflect that there is something like a dead body in every room. In fact, this hollow, lifeless form is the precondition of the room itself, and of any structure it might resemble. The room, constructed by way of human labor, contains within it a certain quantity of dead labor. This is Marx’s terminology for “living” labor done in the past, since congealed into a certain concrete form (for his purposes, a commodity). We might recall the sensuous-non-sensuous phantasmagoria of commodities depicted in Capital, where these containers of dead labor come to take on (and actually stand in for) social relations between living people. [1] (The circulation of capital itself calls to mind the circulation of blood throughout a living body, the systematic functioning of organs, etc., yet in a fundamentally non-living, organless “nothing” – that is, nothing more than a process, or a force.) Each floorboard and slab of drywall has been imprinted with past suffering. This is not the only meaning this shadow has for us, however; it also indicates the fundamental instability of any structure. The room, supported and maintained by way of timber studs and a concrete foundation, roots itself against a certain sliding. But this foundation too is sinking into the dirt. In both practical and theoretical terms, we are faced with only one conclusion: There is in fact no foundation which is not already sliding. Taking a longer view, this room might as well already be a coffin. Every structure, from this room up to an economy, is nothing other than its differing from, and deferral of, its own oblivion. Instead of firm ground we so desperately want to establish, we may find only a shadow.

This problem is not something that we like to think about, and for good reason: we have made an investment in stability, both conceptual and literal. Investment presupposes that the mathematical limit of 0 exists—which is not to say that things invested in cannot be destroyed or “go negative,” but rather that investment demands the belief that they will not. Literally, there can be no initial investment in any venture, as the first investment has necessarily already been made in the ground of the economy of decision-making itself. This constructive belief will not hold up under investigation. Whatever investment has been made, it has inevitably taken place on already unstable ground; or above no ground at all, if there is a rhetorical difference.

What have we established so far? Only that notions of stability, permanence, or presence (that is, notions in general) rely on an “initial” investment. Rather than belief following from rational analysis, it is often this analysis, and the decisions made that follow, that precedes from a deeply held set of beliefs which elude introspection. These beliefs themselves correspond to our implication in a given economy, that is, our investment in a given set of material relations. Our social position often depends on the maintenance of an economic status quo, or equilibrium; therefore, we have cause to believe in this equilibrium’s essential stability. The investment we have made may be “emotional” or “economical,” but either way, it has always already occurred. It is the belief that follows from this investment that cements the necessary notion of stability from which confident decisions can be made.

Different, but the same

However, that emotion and economy can be totally separated is precisely what is at question, and here we are forced to consider what economy is. This turns out to be a difficult question. For many of us, an economy is the market, or rather an interconnected series of markets wherein prices are worked out and commodities are bought and sold. There is also the less common notion of a day-to-day economy of time and energy, a more general decision-making process which none of us can avoid engaging with, but which goes presupposed in our lives, such that we do not give it much thought. To unpack this distinction, we need only think about the book we have just been reading. If we can calm our nerves, that is. It is more than likely that this book was produced through the labor of workers at a printing press, and therefore came to us as the result of a process of production, itself dependent on the purchase of machinery and labor-power (workers hired for a wage), a long chain of economic decisions which we stand at the end of in purchasing the book. However, it is also possible that we have written this book ourselves, perhaps it is only our journal, or someone close to us has written it only in order to share it freely among family and friends. In the first example, our book is a commodity; in the second, it is only a useful object. In a market economy commodities are privileged, but both objects engage in different (yet necessarily overlapping) economies in general. Not only does the second book come to exist only as a product of economic action beyond the market—within the reciprocal bond of friendship, or as a use-value for ourselves, etc.—but it also stands in relation to a day-to-day economy. This book or that one? Will we have time to read it? Is there room on our shelf? And, will it be “worthwhile”? After all, life will only ever have been too short.

If we take both of these conceptions of economy seriously, it appears that we have two competing definitions, which (for the sake of an economy of language) we will label a monetary or restricted economy, and a general economy. In terms of investment, we can further identify this split in terms of monetary investment and cathection, or emotional investment. Let us be clear: the difference between these terms is formal at best, and is a historical one, bound to the dominance of market imperatives which characterizes modern society. In a market (capitalist) society, one is made blind to general economy due to a certain embeddedness in a market economy. A restricted economy is (and clearly can only ever be) a fraction of the general economy, the broad swath of decisions we, all of us, are called upon to make, decisions which concern difficult or impossible to define emotional, ethical, and/or aesthetic considerations, decisions which are in effect impossible to make; and yet this fraction of possible decisions, the quantitative, logical, and rational, comes to dominate our decision making process in general, becomes in fact our only sense of “economy.”

Impossible imperatives

So it is that, while life being too short is undeniable, the imperative to make use of this time before it slips away comes to obscure the impossibility of decision-making in general. “Impossible” in the sense that there has never been, and could never be, a position privileged enough, or great enough an expenditure of time and resources, through which we could ensure an infallible decision. Therefore, every decision involves some (greater or lesser) leap of faith, a leap over an abyss which gives lie to the supposedly indestructible rational foundation from which market decisions are made. It is telling that economic diagrams take place in the first quadrant of the Cartesian plane: restricted economy is predicated on a mathematical logic that has foreclosed non-negative solutions, that assumes the limit of 0. A line approached, yet never breached. But this limit has always-already been violated. There is a dead body in the room; it is sinking through the floor, it is the floor, the foundation and the ground of a rational market logic, that is, the persistent denial and deferral of death, and therefore of an economy of human experience in general.

The myth of economic liberalism, that the market itself need only be “freed” of regulation, is made suspect by our terminology, but we might reflect as well that the “free” market is not constructed around “consumer choice” so much as consumer imperatives. [4] Such consumer choice serves in fact to limit freedom, as it means we may choose whatever we like, but only from the basket of consumables (commodities destined for individual consumption), which itself is severely limited by the same market imperatives. In this way we avoid the difficulty of making the impossible decisions life itself demands of us (that is, what life is) which make up the general economy of life and death, of differing and deferral. What is the human body if not the site where the limit of the restricted economy is breached? A starving person doesn’t care if the price of bread has risen due to rampant inflation, and they will fight for food, or exert other extra-economic pressures, if need outpaces supply. And a dead body doesn’t care at all for the profits it accumulated while it still held life. Death is expenditure without reserve. [5]  To put it another way: death, a (if not the) reality of life, is but one example of a practical reality that is excluded by the so-called “rational” restricted economy of market society. This fundamental negativity, this contradiction which is the condition for existence itself, undermines the stability of any structure, instilling a certain panic which opens briefly a path towards general economy. A general economy which is anterior to logic, or rational decision-making, and also to joy, sadness, life and death. General such that even a shadow, nothing more than nothing, cannot be denied its importance—its value independent of any market.

Owen Steinberger is a student of economics at CUNY's John Jay College in NYC, formerly at University College Dublin. He bakes bread in Philadelphia, PA.

[1] See especially Karl Marx, Capital ch.1 §4.

[2] This distinction is borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s essay “From restricted to general economy,” [R/G] printed in (1978) Writing & Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] The term “embeddedness” is Karl Polanyi’s. See (2001) The Great Transformation (2nd ed.) Boston: Beacon Press. Polanyi also coined an important distinction between formalist (market) and substantivist (non-market, pre-capitalist) economic models.

[4] In fact, we are talking about a precondition of capitalism as much as its current tendencies. See Ellen Mieksins Wood, (2017) The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso.

[5] Derrida, R/G.

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