Negative Capitalism: the argument

The following will appear in ‘Negative Capitalism’ explaining the direction of the text, and is intended as an abstract of sorts for the book overall.


Each of us lives in an era where our social and economic circumstances are determined by financial capital. The scale of debts owed collectively to invisible and unknown creditors is the pretext for increased demands for productivity and consumption, in exchange for vastly increasing living costs, rents, and reductions in social securities and real wages. Each of us has little agency or control over these circumstances, whilst distant banks and an aloof and privately-educated political class intensify their control and management over our everyday lives. Everything (and everyone) begins to break down under the pressure of being a productive consumer, but a bonus culture and neoliberal political ideology strengthens financial capitalism by the day, whilst frayed communities fragment under the pressure. This negation of individuals into economically productive behaviours represents a new kind of era, with specific disorders (depression, anxiety), specific devices (the internet, smart-phone, and laptop) and a new cultural feeling (cynicism).

When was the last time you had a couple of days of just relaxation, without the pretext of a holiday, which didn’t involve checking emails, buying things, or guiltily trying to catch up with undernourished relationships? In an era of negative capitalism, life itself becomes negated and alienated from its sources of happiness and social support. Relaxation is accompanied by guilt. Even though there is no simple solution, there are strategies within grasp that might replace our negative habits acquired under capitalism with new and more organic ones. There is no evidence of a pure or essential natural life that each of us might regain after capitalism; nor is there evidence that human beings will always in every circumstance rationally determine to cooperate peacefully for the ‘good’: these are two mistaken assumptions socialism has made in the past about human history which are the effects of a monotheistic religious perspective. Neither is human history necessarily ‘bad’: the point is to understand the nuanced and complex nature of human life, and from this develop strategies for the positive new development of societies by education, democracy, and law. Industrial capitalism has, from its origins in the slavery of cotton plantations and the urban workhouse, been aggressively motivated by the end of private profit and the accumulation of wealth by property-owners, at the expense of workers’ lives, health, and natural environments. The private profit motive is intrinsically selfish and destructive of others in its competition. Whilst economically it may seem sustainable, at least to those who succeed and for whom histories are written about, as a social model it injects a violence and aggressive competition into everyday life.

Neoliberalism is the political model of financial capitalism and represents the current political and economic consensus of leaders in Europe, China, and the West. It is an economic argument that unregulated financial trade is the best model for a self-sustaining and meritocratic economy. Whilst it is debatable how fundamentally violent, competitive, or power-seeking human life is, rather than working towards a cooperative and regulated social democracy as I will argue for, declaring capitalism as the best basis for a developed society is dangerously destructive, crisis-ridden, and ultimately fascistic. Capitalism intrinsically negates individual and collective capacity for equal political representation, social rights, and quality of life, given that its base assumption is that the value of life is determined by its success in individually accumulating and trading wealth. The more powerful capitalism is – that is, the more wealth can be observed to be concentrated in the hands of a very small cabal of effective capitalists – the less the lives of individuals and communities on low-incomes matter. There is no ‘good’ capitalism, and the system is by no means in a state of crisis, unless perhaps its sustainability is threatened by the growing anger of social democratic revolt across the globe.

Just as there is no positive capitalism, making an old argument for something seemingly opposite like communism is also pretty suspect. Such an idealistic system is very difficult to establish in practice without resorting to totalitarian measures to ensure its own security from war by external capitalist states, worried about unrest in their own impoverished populations. Instead, a more practical strategy for social transformation is cooperative social democracy, whereby private profit and private property is rendered irrational and illegal, and all things are owned and managed by democratic workers’ associations, housing associations, and so on. Social democracy could instead incentivise workers and citizens to develop their workplaces and communities with an appeal to wellbeing, civic responsibility and collective security and happiness. Rather than sulkily waiting for the end of history to level financial capitalism, the opponents of neoliberalism need to start learning from current elites and develop strategies that encourage workers to want to overthrow financial capital. Arguments about its inevitable demise are insufficient. Equal rights and responsibilities need to be legally guaranteed, including access to a living basic wage, shelter, education, healthcare, and employment, being legally-based rights for citizens in a social contract guaranteed by a secular civil constitution. Rights need to be accompanied by responsibilities too, such as the establishment and participation in local and state civil activities and decision-making, observing intelligent compassion and concern for others, and a basic amount of peer-support, training, education, and community work for others in one’s locality. These might feel less of a burden in such a social democracy where full employment is guaranteed, meaning that one’s hours of productive work would be individually far less than they are currently, where despite the high amount of unemployment, workers are continuously demanded to be more productive in their jobs. Social democracy could celebrate and develop scientific research and cultural activity and production, a key basis of its economy that young people can lead, and could use sustainable and advanced technologies within a Keynesian social framework that pushes tax expenditure into construction and development of infrastructure, local energy production and domestic manufacture, making local areas self-sustaining and therefore more impervious to trade, the archaic basis of the ‘middle-man’, greed – financial capitalism. In the final case, the aim of social democracy is the creation of an educated and relaxed democratic body, that discuss and vote collectively in their millions for the future of themselves and their communities.

Financial capital introduces an additional sphere of the negative into everyday life. Negativity presents a new means of describing contemporary neoliberal capitalism, a financial being based on control and a fundamental negation of its own presence and time – its immateriality, non-places, precarity, and time-space compression; the fixed subjectivity and wealth of the nation-state undone by the dark financial algorithms of Capital. Even capitalist time is negated finally as market decisions are made by stock exchange algorithms at preternatural speeds, whilst the market for ‘futures’ means that experiential time is itself commodified. This negation of time and space has generated a specific kind of anxiety, reflected in increasing anxiety disorders as well as increasing psychological and social breakdowns. Negative capitalism links declining childbirth, relationship instability and malfunctioning families to the increasing demands of total productivity of life by capital. Everything and everyone are plunged into uncertainty, doubt and the inability to grasp essences and an overall sense of things. Its promise of increased speeds and new pleasures comes at the expense of analogue mediums and fixed certainties.

Debt is owed nowhere and to no-one: where exactly is financial capital? Since 1971 there has been no physical grounding for money, and the means in which central banks manage national economies involves less lateral trade and more esoteric mechanisms like recent ‘quantitative easing’ for instance, where money is created to stimulate economic growth. The unreality of money isn’t significant: the way that banks manage an equilibrium of economies through their own purchasing power is more sinister, and despite the continual cycle of crisis in neoliberal capitalism, a far more stable equilibrium has operated, as central banks have acquired greater and greater social resources through state sell-offs of public assets. Financial markets now trade in digits, assets, shares and futures, goods that often do not exist, but on which the fortunes of states, pension-funds, and communities are based. Whilst financial trade may not trade in actual goods, just like the semantically-meaningless language of contemporary politicians examined later, its trade and production of wealth has very real and specific political purposes. Financial capitalism encloses, trades and in its process abstracts publicly-produced wealth into a universal language of financial capital, an abstract code of currency that is privately and competitively traded, motivated by profit and bonuses, which in turn drives capital into a smaller and smaller share of ownership. Its purpose is the maintenance and propagation of itself.

This work aims to detail the scale of the problem: negative capitalism and its existential costs, and the cultural effects of cynicism. Rather than reel off just a utopian fairy-world of what and why, the intention here is to focus additionally on how, on strategy. I do not claim to know how exactly we all should live, or that ‘we all’ (assuming that all of you already agree with me, another conceit to avoid) should act or behave in one way or another. The aim is to stimulate response with a series of wild, occasionally arrogant and deliberately inflammatory arguments. The argument does offer a solution to the problems of negative capitalism – what is described here as social democracy – but this concept is offered to provoke discussion above all else. Cynical passivity is the problem. Nothing less than a basic quality of life is the prize and the end.