The Time of Crisis

Author’s Note: This text with images was originally presented at the Historical Materialism New York conference in May of 2011. Given the context, the text does not go into the sort of detail the matter really requires. A longer version is likely destined for an anthology of writings on contemporary tactics, strategy, and logistics of insurrectionary struggle within a context of financialized global capital, and it is in those terms that I would frame the talk, gloss or two points further, and underscore certain elements that may tend to recede into the background — while at the same time opening up the questions that are left unanswered herein.

The tactic in question is organized debt default. The major categories of personal debt are student loans, home mortgages, and “consumer” or credit card debt. Each of these categories presents different problems regarding organization — what does it mean to organize unemployed homeowners in default, students who have temporary jobs and an uncertain market future, and consumers whose wages are not keeping up with cost of living? Can these disparate groups be organized together? These matters must be addressed.

The strategy within which nests this the tactic is that of interfering with capital’s self-valorization, through which surplus value arising in the sphere of production is realized as profit in the sphere of circulation. The extended opening presents this historical development in which the valorization chains are increasingly attenuated, and suggests that globalization and financialization are complementary forms of this attenuation — spatial and temporal respectively — which should be understood as a unitary process expressed along two distinct axes. From this I suggest that, without abandoning a consideration of capital interruption from the two positions of production and circulation (that is, workerist and consumptionist perspectives) we might alternately view attacks on valorization from spatial and temporal perspectives. It is the latter that argues for the tactic of collective debt default, as debt is a scheme for realizing a profit in the future when capital can no longer valorize itself sufficiently in the present. However, here I must underscore what has dropped out of the reception to this text — the insistence that the temporal interruptions such as collective debt default are complements to spatial interruptions (strikes, sabotage, occupation), which must themselves be understood as tactics against valorization, even if they appear chaotic, opportunistic, or spontaneous, like the riot or sabotage. I neither suggest nor believe that temporal strategies have much power isolated from their complements, or cut off from an adequate logistical framework.

The logistics within which nest this strategy and this tactic include, significantly, those gestured toward all too briefly at the very end of the talk: what I call “collectives of withdrawal, or subtraction,” which is to say, social arrangements in which collective support can be provided against the individual disciplines that attend debt default. At a minimum this means providing food and shelter for those who can no longer earn money in the formal economy. More capaciously, it suggests the development of informal economies which depend less and less on the superflux of capital’s formal economies, but are able to sustain themselves without that suplus. If this logistical frame comes to look like a “dual power” approach, there is a reason for this. The tactic of collective debt default and the larger strategy of valorization interruption cannot themselves strike a blow fatal to capital. They will have some effects; they will wound, infuriate, and confuse the beast. But they will also compel, if pursued seriously, the development and expansion of non-capitalist zones, able to increasingly provide collective material life outside the real subsumption of capitalism’s lifeworld. Collective debt default implies communities that first exist within the pores of global capital, but which mean eventually to replace its organs with an entirely different metabolic system, and thus a different relationship to the totality.


I have a rather minor goal in this talk, or at least it is a talk in a minor key. The major tone is that of Giovanni Arrighi, and as this is my first visit to Historical Materialism, I wanted mostly to remember and honor his thought — both alone and with Beverly Silver — which has been so important for me and so many others. I want to offer a couple thoughts on its place and time in the present terrain of antagonisms, and that will be that.

Happily, Arrighi’s signal text, The Long 20th Century, will not need to much summarizing in this venue, and I trust you’ll fill in the blank spaces I am compelled to leave. It is itself a reflection and recasting of the work of Fernand Braudel (and to a lesser degree Ernest Mandel), extending and intensifying the double periodicity of capitalist cycles of accumulation: the long centuries of each world-system-organizing regime and its hegemon, and within those, the leadership of sequential modes of capital.

This latter, intra-epochal motion contains the two most trenchant (and well-remarked) features of the account. One is distinctly Braudelian: that each cycle can be divided into three phases led successively by the powers of merchant, industrial, and finance capital, with the first phase being prologue, the second the grand flowering of the hegemon, and the last being the decline, when actual accumulation starts to fail and the struggle for shares of the diminishing surplus intensifies. The second feature is Arrighi’s own novel insight: that world-system hegemons share a particularly capitalist logic of empire, wherein one seizes territory to make money, rather than vice versa. In his formulation, capital’s inversion of C-M-C to M-C-M’ has a spatial analog in which T-M-T (territory to make money to take more territory) is inverted to M-T-M, whence arises the hegemons and their long centuries. As an important and last addition to this, Arrighi notes that the rise and fall of each hegemon can be understood as the complementary motions M-C and C-M (or M-T and T-M), material expansion followed by financial expansion, ending in signal and then terminal crisis.

Before I add my own small inflection or reorientation, or maybe it’s really just a research question, I want to set forth a couple striking meta-notes about Arrighi’s analysis and its place in intellectual history, which is to say its place in the political history of intellectual institutions. These suggest, I think, why the analysis is more timely than ever.

One is something like the argument’s proper place, its territorial logic within the disciplines. It is almost entirely a piece of historical economics, from an author with a doctorate in economics working in the tradition of the Annales School. And yet Giovanni once told me that it was more frequently assigned in Comparative Literature courses than in economics or history or political science or sociology, the department he found himself in at Johns Hopkins. Now why should this have been the case? The positive answer is that the book provides an almost uniquely powerful periodizing framework for thinking about national literatures, or the motion of imperial culture in general. But there is also a negative case, concerning the extent to which, in the wake of the systematic demarxification of the academy that defined the sixties and after, Marxian thought was increasingly herded into the winter pasture of the humanities, and particularly to the culturalist confines identified with the Frankfurt School.

My second meta-note regards the extent to which the book’s schema has served as an occasion for reanimating three clichéd critiques which, braided together, have been familarly used to bind Marxian thought in general. (I feel like there should be a word for “clichéd critiques” — clichtiques sounds like a cosmetic product, so I’ll use crichés.)

These three crichés are,
First, that Arrighi’s globe-spanning six-century tale universalizes what is a particular positional story, thusly falling inattentive to local difference and the granularity of daily life across the globe, imputing an ontological consistency to the radical heterogeneity which is history itself; finally it explains too little.
Second, that it is a totalizing account, swiftly arrogating all experience to a schematic logic, which basically can’t be true because it works too neatly to be anything but an imposition — a grand narrative par excellance; finally, it explains too much.
Third, that it proposes an iron determinism — a historical chemin-de-fer — that even if it not quite promising an eternal return of the same, nonetheless unspools along an immutable spiral track, against which the willful struggles of a few antinomian folks here and there can have little or no diversionary force — and so finally explains rather than challenges: a theodicy of imperial capital.

Arrighi responded thoughtfully to these, especially the third, in the Postscript to the second edition. For the moment I note only that these crichés have long been leveled against Marx’s critique of political economy in general, from multiple positions, like the attacks on various fortifications of the city during the time of the Commune — but as 140 years ago, in some sense the great counter-revolutionary coup was enabled from within. In place of the well-heeled citoyens of Passy who gave passage to the Versaillaise, it would be the post-structuralist citizens of the left who allowed for the most sustained and ambitious attack on the allegedly universalizing, totalizing and deterministic Marx.

Thus we can say that Arrighi’s placement in intellectual history is exemplary of the situation of Marxian thought and its dynamics in general, over the last four decades. But we presently find ourselves in a changed situation. The magnetism of a cultural Marxism, and the disciplining super-nuance of post-structuralism — both already on the wane as of the millennium — have been dealt rather decisive blows by global economic catastrophe, which has returned the problematics of political economy, of historical materialism in its strong form, and of the dialectic of value theory and crisis theory, to the main of thought — as signaled by the rediscovery of Marx as a significant or ominous figure in bourgeois circles, and the reanimation of debates of communism, the communist hypothesis, the insurrectionary ultraleft, and so on.

It is in some sense exactly the matter of time, of time and the present, or of time that is and isn’t present, that I want to revisit Arrighi’s periodizing hypotheses. That is, I want to think about them in terms of time. I have a local and a global reason for doing so, or maybe a kernel and a currency.

The former is that my reading of value theory proposes that the sphere of production, or value, is a regime oriented by time, while the sphere of circulation or price is a regime oriented by space. I actually mean something relatively simple by this: that value is congealed Socially Necessary Labor Time rather than labor or labor power itself — this is the critical distinction between Marx’s and Ricardo’s value theories — while circulation is a spatial exchange, as money and commodity swap places. This can be thought about in quite metaphysical ways and at great length, but this is neither time nor place. The great shorthand for this is the remark in the Grundrisse: “This locational movement—the bringing of the product to the market, which is a necessary condition of its circulation, except when the point of production is itself a market –could more precisely be regarded as the transformation of the product into a commodity.”

The transformation of value to price — that is, the process of exploitation, of surplus value extraction and realization as profit — can be understood as the compelled exchange of incommensurates, of the exchange of time for space. Here we must remark — if only it could be for the last time! — that the compelled exchangeability of the market is not the sign of some totalizing discourse, but the signature of capital itself, subjecting every single thing and process to the discipline of equivalence, a signature monogrammed across the globe as M-C-M.

I might add that this is not actually a contrary reading to that of the Temporal Single Solution Interpretation, I believe, but a different register in which to frame the same situation; it is exactly the restoration of adequate temporality that distinguishes Kliman et al’s subtle analysis. One further implication is that it is instructive but inadequate to declare a given era as dominated by time or by space, as various Marxian thinkers have proposed; the question is rightly about a given era’s orientation toward the two, its atunement of one to the other, and status of their transformation. And it is this that links value theory to crisis theory and to our present moment, since we can think of crisis as arising both when value production declines and when various operations to paper over that fact with fictitious capital cease functioning.

Thus it is toward time that I wish to reorient Arrighi’s account, not as a correction but simply as another way of thinking about things. It is fairly straightforward. One might conceive of the first phase of a cycle of accumulation as turned toward the past: this period, always overlapping with the preceding cycle, busies itself with seizing and reorganizing the markets, routes and relations of that departing age. Its predilection for dressing itself in the robes of previous epochs and empires, as a strategy to realize itself in a new present, is well-noticed by Marx and Benjamin among others.

Having reformulated and shrugged off the past, the second or high period of empire might be understood as turned toward the present, internalizing new markets and subjecting new territories to the necessary labor regime: a period of material expansion and relatively unproblematic value extraction in which thinkers and thoughts of transition fade into the background, and history’s sundial seems to pause at the permanent noon of power. And the third phase, that of decline and financial expansion, might properly be understood as turned toward the future.

This is true in the realm of thought and even of feeling: social life is increasingly dominated by anxieties regarding what might happen next, endless proclamations of “the end” of this and that, coupled with concerns regarding competing hegemons and increasingly hysterical disavowals of the same — what we might call the dialectic of China and the Project for a New American Century, or the competing delusions of renewed millenarism and climate-change-denial.

This futurizing turn also becomes fundamental at the stratum of political economy, defining the struggles for accumulation, profit, and class power. Here I pose my research question, which I will do little to answer today: per Arrighi’s territorializing of the double motion of M-C and C-M into the accumulation modes of Money-Territory and Territory-Money, might we consider a temporal logic and think of these motions as Money-Time and Time-Money? Is there something to be gained from that thought experiment? I am not entirely sure, though it does seem to me that it throws into clearer relief the fate of the value form in the era of finance-led capital.

Alongside that more structural question, I want to attend to the matter of attentuation. The time-space transformation of value necessarily present in exploitation/valorization becomes ever more attenuated via the hegemony of credit instruments, which should always be understood as the extension of the distance between value and price. Price is given in the present for value; socially necessary labor time — let us also call this immiseration, just for clarity’s sake — promised later. The term mortgage, being the most perfect example of this time-for-space swap, rises to the fore. Student and household loans follow close behind; as many of you will know, the former has just surpassed the latter and in the next couple of years we will reach the plateau of one trillion in outstanding student loans.

This happens at the level of the state as well, evidently enough. Globalization, so often described as a spatial regime — it’s in the name, after all — must in these terms be understood equally as a temporal regime, as the separation and alienation of the instants and elements of the value transformation in time as much as space, and in some moments even more so. Financialization may be a casino, but it is at least as accurate to say that it is a kind of time travel. Or at least a kind of fortune-telling, in which debt fixes the futures of its subjects, for certain small concessions in the present. The French phrase for fortune-telling, I cannot help but note, is “bonne-aventure” — as in the Bonaventure Hotel where Fredric Jameson realized the actuality of postmodernism, the cultural logic of late capital. It turns out to be the logic of bonne-aventure itself — and the problem of futurization, of credit and debt, has not waned but intensified.

I say this not because it is a revelation, but because it is a zone of conflict — literal class conflict — and I wish to end on the matter of strategy and tactics, by way of the autonomist hypothesis. I will admit I have considerable skepticism about the “becoming immaterial of labor” and all its predicates. Its great contribution, associated with Dalla Costa, Fortunati, and Federici, is surely the rethinking of the situation of domestic and reproductive labor of all kinds, and particularly so-called “woman’s work,” – as and in relation to exploitation –; this has offered vital insights into the historical and necessary relation between capitalist value production and brutal gender inequality.

At the same time, the autonomist proposals to rethink value production as arising from other sources than the productive economy, in light of the decreased distinction between intellectual and manual labor; the critique of an alleged Marxian ontology of presence levied by Antonio Negri (as well as Jacques Derrida); the forwarding of a new circuit of value production that, per Christian Marazzi, leaves behind any nostalgia for “a time before labor became linguistic” — these positions, it seems to me, have been rendered inoperative in the clear light of the current economic catatsrophe, which is irreducibly one of real, old-fashioned, nostalgia-dipped value asserting itself savagely.

But there is something unmistaken in this, let us say, Negrian mistake. I think that the phenomemon indexed by the autonomist view is precisely the space-time attentuation of the valorization process as it currently stands — so attenuated that it seems immaterial, like the troposphere, or fire.

If labor has been in some regard dematerialized in the US, in the OECD nations, it has been unequally rematerialized elsewhere: Haitian sneaker mills and Mexican maquiladoras and Foxconn factories in the midst of migrating from China to Brazil. These locations are the places, one might say, for a politics of place: the strike, most evidently, and sabotage and blockage. But if capital’s great defensive achievement of late modernity has been to remove itself from its home countries, as it were, to attenuate itself such that it is no longer clear where to attack — if there is no clear place of struggle — there is nonetheless a time of struggle, a politics of time, as this particular temporal regime of capital demands.

What does it mean, per the title of the X-Files movie, to fight the future? Not in some abstract sense, but as an actual arena of class struggle, an interruption of the circuits of value in time? This can only designate the arena of credit and debt itself. The circulation of credit and debt is, for all its dematerialized technologies, nonetheless a material process; it is not inoculated against interruptions of its flows. And it is here — here is the wrong word, of course, but it is hard to say now, for the reasons that have been enumerated — that class struggle must happen in the home counties. The class is not that of Multitude, of dematerialized labor, but is the class of debt — and the politics of time, I think this is an inevitable conclusion, is that of debt default. Debt default — and perhaps this is my only claim — is the temporal complement to the specific or general strike, and is the route of solidarity with material labor, with the place of exploitation.

But this does not make it an easy solution. The disciplining mechanisms of debt are in many ways both invisible and individualized: garnishing of wages, the increasing disciplines imposed by bad credit, and so forth. Any organizing effort must account for these reactions — which is to say, the politics of debt default as interruptive attack imply a correlated set of organizing practices based on the development of collectives of withdrawal, or subtraction, able to sustain what I would like to call not exactly the default lifestyle but perhaps the default milieu. And it is with this correlation of debt default as economic antagonism, and collectives of subtraction, that I think we can see a logic for solidarity between traditional Marxian analysis and those of certain anarchist and ultraleft tendencies — but this I must leave for the next conversation.