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Why Leftist Activists Should Learn to “Follow the Money”

In Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age, Belgian philosopher Michel Feher proposes strategies for activists in an age of unchecked finance capitalism.

Cover of Michel Feher’s Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age (Zone Books, 2018)

“Follow the money.” It’s both heartening and dispiriting that those three words would seem to hold the entire promise of the United States’ political recuperation. Made famous by William Goldman’s script for All The President’s Men, “follow the money” sent Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) on the path to revealing the corruption and cover-up at the heart of the 1972 Watergate burglary and Richard Nixon’s presidency. Since then, the phrase has become almost a cliche of high-level criminal investigations, and one can be sure it’s the reigning mantra of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and whatever obstructions and corruptions might have preceded and followed it.

But “follow the money” can have a different, expanded definition, too. Today, in the decade that has followed the Great Recession, finance capitalism has continued its ascendency unchecked. For many, following the money means a capitulation to the market, an acceptance that there is no alternative means to organize society, nor even some imagined horizon beyond which things could be otherwise. The energy of leftist resistance, once aimed at economic redistribution, is now consumed in large part by fights for the equal distribution, recognition and protection of human dignity both amongst and within special interest movements, such as Times Up or Decolonize This Place. Alternatives to capitalism remain unimaginable.

Such is the source of the Left’s “melancholy,” according to Michel Feher, the Belgian philosopher whose recent foray into political philosophy, Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age (Zone Books, 2018), clearly and systematically lays out how following the money may not be the grand capitulation that the Left considers it to be. Though Feher never uses the phrase “follow the money” explicitly, it applies to his argument that neoliberalism’s mixture of deregulation and privatization means we all must be entrepreneurs of our own lives, and tolerant of all the risk that goes with that condition. No matter who you are, and whether you like it or not, you’ve bought in. What this makes you, according to Feher, is an “investee”.

Feher wants us to remember, however, that though Left politics prior to the 1970s was organized by the conflict between employees and employers and the fight for “the redistribution of the surplus value created by workers and appropriated by capital owners”, the resolution of that conflict was the compromise of an acceptable equilibrium for both sides, not their mutually assured destruction. For “investees”, Feher writes, the “focus of today’s struggles is on the allocation of credit.” Follow the money far enough, in other words, and you find not who holds it, but its condition of possibility.

Feher is ultimately a pragmatist. He targets three arenas of contemporary political and economic life where credit is key: shareholder valuation, bond market ratings, and platform capitalism. Feher’s directive is not that each arena must be razed and replaced by some utopian alternative. Rather, within each are tools of pressure and coercion that can be turned to the ends of everyday investees who are subject to the whims of the financial overclass, provided those investees get organized.

Take shareholder valuation as an example. In an age when the public expects corporations to maintain some appearance of social responsibility, investors and speculators pay as much attention to a company’s reputation as to its operating fundamentals (think Elon Musk and Tesla). A company’s stock movements can be driven by investor activism, leadership behavior, or media coverage (be it good or bad) as much as earnings calls. Rather than negotiate suitable compromises with labor, corporate leaders today must manage the attractiveness of their companies for equity holders, who in turn are able to subject these leaders to constant harassment if they aren’t seeing a desired increase in share value. This continual harassment is the tool that can be appropriated by stakeholder activists, those subject to the external costs (and benefits) of corporate activity even if they aren’t direct holders of equity. Disinvestment campaigns, such as the defunding of the Dakota Access Pipeline (which Feher mentions), or Liberate Tate’s campaign to end British Petroleum’s sponsorship of the museum (which Feher doesn’t), provide examples of how activists, even when faced with failures of direct political action, have followed the money to similar ends.

The bond market and platform capitalism operate in the same way. Neoliberal economic reforms have ensured that elected officials must focus their political energy on keeping their territories attractive to outside investment, namely bondholders, which means keeping their credit rating high. As such, the political power of the bond market has come to rival, if not override, that of popular sovereignty in many advanced democracies. (When Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville said that after he died he wanted to come back as the bond market rather than as the president, or the pope, this is exactly what he was talking about – and that was 25 years ago.) Yet as 2008 demonstrated, the lenders of last resort turned out to be “we the people”, which shifts their – our – status from “debtor” to “creditor”, with all the empowerment that goes with that title. Such social self-consciousness, combined with the platform technologies and particularly the cross-referenced rating systems that underpin Uber, M Turk and others, points, in Feher’s thinking, to a potential renewal of cooperativism. Call it Uber without the C-suite rent-seekers.

Feher recognizes that what he identifies as these new “dimensions” of investee politics – stakeholder activism, the claims of social creditors, and cooperativism – are “experimental” at this point. Yet, as Feher writes in one of his many helpful summation statements: “In a world where both legal entities and physical persons are enjoined to devote themselves to improving their credit, challenging creditors’ rating power primarily involves counterspectulating so as to alter the conditions under which creditworthiness is defined and distributed”. Sarah Mehoyas’s development of “BitchCoin,” the artist’s own cryptocurrency that collectors can use to purchase her art, or Real Flow, a collective project where the “author function” of the artist is reimagined as a “portfolio manager” and the artwork as a derivative product, are just two examples of such counterspeculations from within the precincts of the art world.

Whatever one makes of the promise or pragmatics of Feher’s investee politics, his subtle but important conceptual shift of emphasis from “value” to “credit” may be Rated Agency’s most enduring contribution to political economy going forward.

In the wake of the Great Recession, itself a rebuke to political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s argument that after the end of history everything else is economics, a number of significant thinkers attempted to re-anchor the problem of value in more solid moral and ethical grounds. Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy (2012), Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale (2010) and Ronald Dworkin’s masterwork Justice for Hedgehogs (2011) all sought to put “value” on more objective and less relative footing, to give it back all of the complexity that market reductionism had squeezed out of it.

Rated Agency, in contrast, suggests that value may not be the theoretical concept we need. It’s not that value is no longer relevant, just that, like Newtonian physics, its descriptive accuracy may apply only at limited scales of observation. How valuable something is, be it a luxury object like a painting or a common resource like clean drinking water, can and should now be reconceived in terms of its creditworthiness. The quantum mechanics of credit entail understanding how attractive something is to capital investment – human and social capital as well as monetary – and what agencies carry rating power, including institutional and societal as well as individual agency.

From this vantage point, it’s not difficult to see how arguments over and about value gained popularity in the wake of 2008. Moral philosophy and practical reason offered a mental refuge from the bad news of what had just been proven true: that there is no outside to finance capitalism. To accept this as the case may mean embracing Feher’s investee politics of credit and counterspeculation. At the very least, it shows us how imperative it is to follow the money.

Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age by Michel Feher is available through Zone Books and other online booksellers.

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