Tag: Vogl

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Although Adam Smith was responsible for coining one of the most popular slogans for describing how a market economy operates, its semantics are determined by two further aspects. On the one hand, if we follow the tangled history of the “invisible hand” metaphor, we can see how through this metaphor theological and cosmological questions were deposited in the field of social ontology. A century before Adam Smith, for instance, the metaphor referred to something secretly at work in relations between natural things, a cosmological phenomenon that, like the mechanism of a clock, hides behind the clearly visible hands and dial: “For Nature works by an Invisible Hand in all things.” […] The manus gubernatoris of Scholastic philosophy, the guiding hand of God invisibly directing all Creation, returns as an influential theological metaphor for the Providence manifest in the natural order, the oeconomia naturae. And before the “invisible hand” appeared in Wealth of Nations as a topos for the law-governed activity that turns self-interest and the striving for gain to the general good, this expression occurred in Smith himself in an entirely different yet equally significant context.

In his History of Astronomy, probably written around 1758, not only did Smith attempt an apologia for the Newtonian world system, with its laws of gravity and inertia; he also casually remarked on the inability of polytheistic religions to trace irregular events in the natural world — events in which they saw the miraculous power of the ancient gods at work — back to regularly occurring patterns. While it is only natural that “fire burns and water refreshes,” or that “heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upward,” extraordinary phenomena such as lightning, thunder, or storms call for explanation — and for this the ancients would in the end simply turn to Jupiter’s “invisible hand.” […] Here too the invisible hand is treated as a cosmological fact; and just as an invisible hand will later bring the unpredictable inclinations of self-seeking subjects to order, so too here an invisible hand shows how irregular natural events manifest the workings of divinely ordained laws. As a result of such supernatural intervention, earthly matters are brought into conformity with Providence, irregularities are translated into order, and diffuse forces and movements [p.26] are made to bear witness to an invisible power linking them together. All this activity by invisible hands indicates that hidden manipulations — in the most literal sense — intervene both in the natural course of events and in the dynamics of social interaction.

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that Smith presented another version of his concept of the “invisible hand” in the first volume of his 1759 essay on moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. And here homo economicus is defined by more than his failure to see the whole situation, his lack of a comprehensive overview. Economic beings can only function to the extent that they are always missing something even more fundamental. […] Despite or precisely because of their “natural selfishness and rapacity,” the rich share their wealth with the poor. In Smith’s words, this means that […] “they are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distributions of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants; and thus without intending, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society and afford the means for the multiplication of the species.”

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.25-26.

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Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Since the Middle Ages, the rudiments of a functioning credit system have been necessary conditions for the expansion of commercial capitalism. […] It is all the more surprising, then, that it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that a sufficiently systematic discussion of banking, capital, and credit mechanisms got underway. This may be due to a delay in the emergence of a systematic science of economics, which was notoriously late in catching up with manifest business practices; but it may also have owed something to a certain theoretical resistance to the fact that a genuinely capitalst structure — one that trades with credit, assets, prospective profits, and hence with time — could no longer be directly translated back into elementary exchange and balance relations. Though people still assumed that there was a balancing dynamic at work in the market, the constant circulation of debt, credit, and capital they observed seemed to contradict this assumption, and they were evidently alarmed by the wide-ranging impact of the economic decisions and actions being taken.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p.41.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

This brings us to one of the most important component of the new social law and the oikodicy, a defining feature of homo economicus and his milieu, the market. Economic beings are reliable on account of their very limitations, they are social due to their lack of sociality, and it is only through their self-interested participation in trade that they can be brought to serve a purpose extrinsic to themselves. Above all, they best exercise control over themselves and others if they are left uncontrolled. There is nothing — and this will be one of the leitmotifs of the liberalism to come — more harmful than a government that wants to do good. On the contrary, what is called for here is a Mephistophelian agenda, one that takes its cue from a power “which would do evil constantly and constantly does good,” inadvertently producing what is best for all. Civil society, which constitutes itself as the milieu of homo economicus, is governed by the principle of nontransparency or inscrutability; there is no benevolent political actor, possessed of an all-encompassing overview and piercing insight, who might be willing and able to do what is good for everyone.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p.24.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

The critical mass of events endlessly argued over by economists resembles a picture puzzle in which reason and unreason, order and chaos, a foreseeable course of world events and sheer unfettered contingency appear as indistinguishable. Questions, exegetical efforts, and controversies of this kind weigh all the more heavily since they bear on the validity of one of liberal economic theory’s oldest and most deep-seated convictions: the conviction that market activity is an exemplary locus of integration mechanisms, harmonization, appropriate allocation, and hence social rationality, and that it demands to be represented in a coherent, systematic way. That is why it seems justified to identify, at the very heart of these disputes in the explanatory attempts occasioned by financial crises, the reprise of a problematic that only older attempts to establish a theodicy had been compelled to address with comparable [p.16] systematic rigor. Given that the capitalist economy has become our fate, given too our propensity to look to profit and economic growth to satisfy some remnant of the old hope for an earthly Providence, modern financial theory also cannot avoid confronting the baffling question of how, if at all, apparent irregularities and anomalies can exist in a system supposedly based on reason. In Leibniz’s terms: Which events appear to be compatible (and hence “compossible”) with which other events? Are relations between these events law-governed and if so, by which laws? And how can the existing economic world be “the best of all possible worlds”?

In any case, the questions that Kant used to test whether attempts at a theodicy were at all tenable would have to be directed, by analogy, to justifications of the current financial system. Here too it would be necessary to demonstrate that what seem to be “counterpurposive” and dysfunctional conditions are in fact nothing of the sort; or that they should not be judged as brute facts but as the “unavoidable consequence of the nature of things,” as tolerable side effects of a generally satisfactory world order; or that they are to be ascribed, in the end, to the flawed nature of “beings in the world,” the limited foresight of unreliable human actors.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.15-16.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Even if the concept of equilibrium has taken different theoretical and epistemological forms on its journey from classical economics, via the marginalists of the nineteenth century, to twentieth-century neoliberalism, these versions share a limited spectrum of basic assumptions. They assume that all market players are interested in maximizing profit or use-value, that a self-regulating relationship between different quantities, forces and other factors obtains, that exchange mechanisms operate most effectively when arbitrary intrusions and interventions are kept to a bare minimum, and hence that the market should be seen as an exemplary arena for the clarification of otherwise inscrutable and opaque forms of social interaction.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 35.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

On the one hand, the rationality of economic transactions is renscribed here in a new code: the exchange “mechanism” becomes the “web” of competition. Competitive societies are understood as being defined less by reciprocal trade relations — as was still the case in the eighteenth century — than by competitive differences or inequalities. And whereas the market once fulfilled the (liberal) natural law of self-interest, it now follows the (neoliberal) idea or form (ēidos) of competition.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p.38.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

[…] those who operate with such theories do not apply them naively. For it is by no means certain that fully decentralized markets actually exist — markets, that is, that are motivated by self-interest, guided by price signals, and guarantee a perfect distribution of economic resources. The less such abstractions apply to the confused situations that prevail in the real world, the greater is the intellectual onus on political economy to demonstrate that even if there are no such things as ideal markets they nonetheless could exist. In other words, while the assumptions behind such markets may not be “realistic,” they do at least stand a chance of being realized. […] It may be possible to detect the workings of a social imaginary in all this, by which we mean those efficacious fictions [p.35] which inform the self-understanding of societies, coordinate social and symbolic practices, and provide intuitively justified images or self-evident truths to determine how society functions and which options for action are available at any given time.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.35-36.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

There may be little agreement about the actual status to be accorded this equilibrium in the nascent discipline of political economy (for example, about whether it should be understood as an optimum, a principle, or a reality), and Smith himself may never have set out exactly what he understood by equilibrium; nonetheless, equilibrium theory became a crucial element of economic knowledge and was passed on through Ricardo, Walras, Jevons, and Pareto to the doctrines of the twentieth century. […] Economic theory was born as a theory of equilibrium.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 31.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, the Specter of Capitalism

Since the seventeenth century — to put it briefly — the discourses of natural rights and moral philosophy have provided some of the building blocks for an all-purpose definition of homo economicus. These discourses connect assumptions about the state of the world with presuppositions about human nature, and they have led to a long-lasting, radical change in the moral household and in the economy of human interrelations. This means, first, that modern homo economicus appears on the scene not merely as a rational subject but also as a passionate one, whereby these passions are regulated via a mechanism of interests. Second, he acts as a blind subject with limited knowledge. It is precisely through this blindness that he produces — unintentionally and unconsciously — harmonious social relations. For this reason, he follows a specific path in life. Homo economicus acquires wisdom through his ignorance and gets ahead in life thanks to his limited awareness and narrow horizons. Incidentally, a similar contradiction can be found in the plot structure of the German Bildungsroman: Wilhelm Meister, too, arrives at his rightful place in life precisely through his limited knowledge and the unintended consequences of his actions, as if steered there by an invisible, “higher hand” […] Third, homo economicus is an enemy of the state in a special sense.  As far as he is concerned, the implementation of a good system — involving laws, institutions, administration, and so on — conflicts with the good implementation of systematicity itself. […] And fourth, this hostility to government interference does not detract, as might be expected, from homo economicus developing into an eminently governable character type.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 27.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

[There is] flagrant disunity as to how one payment incident relates to another and which forces of reason or unreason drive financial activity, provide its dynamics, and motivate its anomalies. This problematic is further complicated by the question of what the play of economic signs actually refers to. In other words, what do movements on the share market indicate? How are price fluctuations on stock exchanges and financial markets to be read and interpreted? What do they have the power to represent?

This semiotic question in turns suggests a peculiar ambiguity in finance economics. On the one hand, “fundamental analysis” concentrates on comparing price movements on financial markets with basal economic data: with factors like productivity, returns, cost structures, forecast dividends, discount rates, current accounts, or purchasing power. [p.13] Such factors provide a well-founded reference point for semiotic events and a realistic or objective orientation point for pricing. From this more or less classical perspective, finance price and stock market quotations hover in the long term around the intrinsic value of companies or even whole national economies. Market trends and cycles would in this view be merely the more or less direct expression a mute economic reality, which will ultimately assert itself thanks to its true and real underlying value. […] A substantial frame of reference can thus be glimpsed beneath the fluctuations on currency and stock markets, with their shifting indices and quotations, and sufficient grounds for them can be found in the fundamental economic data.

On the other hand, the common practice of “technical analysis” operates with a form of observation that strictly disregards these referential dimensions. This is the mantic art practiced by banking and stock exchange personnel who, duly initiated into the mysteries of operations research and computational finance, glean prognostic clues for short-term investment decisions from the charts alone, that is, from their analysis of price movement characteristics. […] Better than all other data — the intrinsic or nominal value of shares, for example — these patterns supposedly reflect the true state of the market; they suggest the shape of things to come and confirm the expressive power of graphs to uncover hidden rhythms in the fluctuations of share market and currency transactions.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), pp.12-13.