A Further Note on Eerie Agentic Capital

The last post on this occasioned a great comment from Ed which I can’t let languish below the comments line. (Has Twitter replaced the old fervent comments section activity of yesteryear?) Ed writes:

The question of whether or not capital has agency — or something like agency — is also intimately connected to the question of ‘what is capital?’. In the standard economic account capital denotes wealth in its various guises — physical assets, financial assets, factors of production, etc, measured and expressed through monetary value. If we go with this understanding of capital, then the question “does capital have agency” comes to appear like a silly one: one owns capital in the form of assets or whatever, thus making one a capitalist. One then is able to move one’s assets about, selling them off, buy new ones and so on, often with certain strategic elements in mind (bringing in things like Austrian theories of time preference). It makes sense why the various orthodox schools of economics would flock to this basic understanding, since it cedes power to the capitalist and above all emphasizes the role of the individual commanding the power at their disposal. 

When the left picks up this understanding, the result is predictable: the problem becomes less structural, and can be solved simply by getting rid of the ‘bad people doing bad things’. The gamut of solutions from egalitarian liberalism to conscious capitalism to replacing the capitalists with the state — or in other cases, the workers themselves — stems fundamentally from this problem. Which of course is the problem you raise here, brilliantly… I was hoping to write something up on the intersection of the agency question with magical voluntarism but you beat me to it!

It should go without saying that Ed should definitely pick this up. He’d no doubt expand on it with far more insight than me!

Relatedly, I’m coming to realize more and more what that the critique of agency by U/Acc was, at least for me, a critique of voluntarism. This bit from Fisher’s critique of Bakker is brilliant in spelling that out:

“Agency does not entail voluntarism. On the contrary, voluntarism is likely to impede agency by obfuscating the causal factors which prevent entities from acting, or which can enable them to act more effectively. Marxism has always known this – what does the famous claim that men make history but not in conditions of their own making mean if not that agency is not the same as the assertion of will? In truth, leftist voluntarism involved a backsliding from the model of agency which Marx had proposed. This Marxian account of agency strikingly resonates with Catherine Malabou’s account of plasticity, which, as Nick Srnicek pointed out in his discussion of Neuropath, offers rich resources for rethinking agency in the light of neuroscientific discoveries. “‘What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity,” Malabou claims. “In ordinary speech [plasticity] designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. … Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. … But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.”

Which delivers us to your question: “Why focus on capital?”


Contra BA in the thread, I don’t think that capital is just one system amongst many. If we take capital in the narrow sense addressed above them yes, it is an element, ultimately under human control but perhaps mystified (or perhaps double-mystified in the case of ideologues: capital under human control -> capital as self-moving substance -> actually under human control after all), that exists in conjunction with other interacting systems. But turning the Marxian account of capital is essential, since it annihilates this individualist supposition and reveals how capital does have an agency in the sense that you have defined here: ability to act as a causal force. Capital isn’t simply owned assets, or means of production, or money (if it was reducible to one of these things, we could theoretical extend capital infinitely into the past, a nonsensical proposition), but something other than them that is nonetheless identifiable to them in this historical moment. It allows convertability between them, empowers their circulation; basically, it moves beneath them, hence the “general formula for capital” being the M-C-M’ loop in itself, and not a distinct moment in it. 

(Larval Subjects has a good post on the M-C-M’ loop in Marx.)

The “realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own” sums it up perfectly: far from being a something moved about by the individual capitalist, capital imparts a unique mode of social mediation, which deposits itself, as Deleuze and Guattari might say, in every pore of society. As the movement of value, it may in distinct moments ultimately derive from labor, but read as a historical flow it captures because it has imposed the value-form on it, making labor into a commodity. Totalizing? Yes, but that’s something that must be taken seriously and not shrugged off. Limits our range of options? Yah. But it also points to the place where politics is capable of being reborn: not in some unmolested pocket free of capitalist relations, or in some mythologized past, but in the abstract possibility of the future. And it illustrates the limit of capital’s domination: in the value-form itself.

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