“Keep Your Fucking Work/Life Balance.”

Though the video itself is quite silly, it helps to give an idea of the system of values in which Wall Street bankers operate.  I post this here as a plea for protesters not to attribute the origins of financial crises to concrete, humanistic causes (namely, the greed of bankers) alone, but to emphasize that the main problems are abstract & systemic ones. The video underscores (sacrilegious as it may sound to devoted Leftists) the fact that most Wall Street bankers are not exempt from the askesis displayed by those providing their testimonials here.

These bankers are caught in a wicked paradox where they can have all the wealth they could want, on the condition that they cannot enjoy it.  It is not uncommon for investment bankers on Wall Street to work 70+ hours a week (mostly on Excel or Powerpoint), nor is it uncommon for them to turn to ‘uppers’ (including cocaine) to boost their stamina in order to get through their work week, which may include multiple all-nighters.  Their bodies deteriorate from lack of exercise just as their minds stagnate from having no other stimulation besides basic mathematics, as well as from their lack of sleep; it is no wonder, then, that in their 3 hours of free time per week, investment bankers turn to alcohol, prostitutes, and superfluous purchases of luxury goods to make themselves feel as if they have some standing in the world. They have their basic needs taken care of, yes, but only on condition that they give up everything else, just as with the rest of the 99%.

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About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on October 10, 2011, in Business, Economics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I post this here as a plea for protesters not to attribute the origins of financial crises to concrete, humanistic causes (namely, the greed of bankers) alone, but to emphasize that the main problems[*] are abstract & systemic ones.

    As you probably gathered from my article on Occupy Wall Street, I am in full agreement with you on this point. Such a belief that a mere personality flaw (greed) is the root of all of society’s woes is what I refer to as the “diabolical” worldview.

    One of the problems with vulgar Marxist critique is that it upholds the primacy of the “concrete” world of production as the sole reality, while the “abstract” world of commodity fetishism is mere illusion. What this fails to take into account from Marx’s original analysis is that the abstract, reified, fetishized forms acquire their own quasi-objective reality in the realm of social consciousness. The abstract is often much more real than the concrete.

    Also, I appreciate how you illustrate how capitalists and bankers and so on are themselves implicated by the logic of capital. Capitalists do not control Capital as such; Capital dictates the ways that they must behave in order to survive.

  2. OWS’s humanism strikes me as entirely corresponding to Lacan’s ‘Other of the Other’: though one’s surroundings (in this case, the financial crisis) seem chaotic, one posits a unifying entity (conspiring bankers) that has the ability to give it order. There’s a marked tendency among intellectuals with a paranoid strain (who are hardly uncommon) to develop theories with this structure, which is attractive even to non-paranoids because of its ‘closure’. Though there are notable exceptions, it generally signifies sloppy thinking, and the ‘diabolical’ worldview (if I’m interpreting you correctly) is the inevitable result of humanistic thinking warped into the structure of the ‘Other of the Other’, both of which being still quite popular in ‘common sense’.

    I think that the Habermasian distinction between system and lifeworld (more or less the same as that of striated and smooth space, respectively) is especially pertinent for understanding this video, since the banker ‘wins’ by constantly asserting the primacy of system over lifeworld (whereas the consultant uses the opposite tactic). The banker entirely incorporates capitalist codes (i.e. those of fashion, wealth, and other types of symbolic capital) into his persona, to the extent that he himself is an embodiment of capitalism, a liminal point between abstract and concrete (and made all the more so by his precarious personal existence). This liminality is precisely what makes humanism insufficient to cognize what really drives bankers, since it rarely looks beyond personal incentives. I’m guessing that the reason that the video values system over lifeworld is because of the former’s ability to ‘colonize’ the latter (which is purported to be a primary source of alienation, anomie, etc.), but the video mysteriously doesn’t make the reason explicit.

    • You understand me correctly. Those who posit human “agency” as an absolute (irrespective of structural determinants) cannot account for the chaos and inequality of the capitalist world-system without attributing it to some sort of overarching conspiracy by the elites of society.

      As you rightly put it, bankers “internalize” the superficial features that result from the underlying structure of capitalism, and to that extent becoming the embodiment of capitalism. But it is not as if the banker or capitalist can act independently of the logic of capital. He himself is subject to the coercive laws that issue forth from its organic composition. I believe Marx explained this best:

      Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the [precapitalist] miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. But what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is in the capitalist the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it necessary constantly to increase the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation. (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I. Pg. 739).

      This is how I framed it in my recent “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What it Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Problems”:

      If you ask the protestors what the root of society’s woes is, one common response you will hear is “greed” or “corporate greed.” Greed, however, is hardly unique to the capitalist mode of production. Max Weber made this abundantly clear in his outstanding introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

      Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction. (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Pgs. xxxi-xxxii).

      Beyond this basic point, the problem with seeing “greed” as the root of all society’s evils is that it mistakes an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism for something more fundamental. It is remarkable the way that capitalism tames the traits of greed and competitiveness into our everyday patterns of behavior. Capitalism exists in such a manner that it normalizes these personality traits throughout the whole of society.

      Another consequence of blaming the gross disparity of wealth that exists between the highest echelons of the capitalist social order and the rest on a mere personality flaw (the poor moral constitution of the top 1%) is that it ignores the way that the capitalists themselves are implicated by the intrinsic logic of Capital. This misunderstanding ultimately amounts to what might be called the “diabolical” view of society — the idea that all of society’s ills can be traced back to some scheming cabal of businessmen conspiring over how to best fuck over the general public.

      (The “diabolical” view of society is not all that far removed from conspiracy theories about the “New World Order,” the Illuminati, or “International Jewry.” Indeed, it is not surprising to see that shades of anti-capitalism misrecognized as anti-semitism have cropped up amongst some pockets of Occupy Wall Street; see Moishe Postone’s excellent essay on “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism.” One can easily see how the “abstract,” “international,” and “alien” qualities of the capitalist totality were transposed onto the person of the Jew, who thought in “abstractions” and made his money through the “abstract” process of financial investment, was “cosmopolitan,” and was an “outsider”).

      Capitalism is not a moral but rather a structural problem. Though he obviously enjoys the benefits that his great wealth affords him, it is not as if the capitalist acts independently of the (reified) laws of bourgeois economics. He is constantly compelled to reinvest his capital back into production in order to stay afloat. In this way, even the capitalist is made subject to forces beyond his control.

      The critical theorist Max Horkheimer picked up on this in a fragment from one of his early essays on “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom”:

      The businessman is subject to laws which neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars, and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality, just as the rotation of the earth expresses the laws of dead nature. No single individual can do anything about them. (Max Horkheimer, Dawn & Decline. Pg. 50).

      These laws of the capitalist mode of production are regarded by bourgeois economists as natural and thus transhistorical, operative in every society past and present. This misrecognition of dynamics peculiar to capitalism as eternal laws of nature has been termed by Marx as “commodity fetishism,” and conceptualized by later Marxist theorists like Lukács as “reification.”

      Such mistakes bear some relation to the old notion that wealth is acquired through simple money-hoarding. Marx himself pointed out the need to dispel “the popular prejudice which confuses capitalist production with simple hoarding, and therefore imagines that accumulated wealth is either wealth that is rescued from destruction in its existing natural form, i.e. withdrawn from consumption, or wealth that does not enter into circulation. The exclusion of money from circulation would constitute precisely the opposite of its valorization as capital, and the accumulation of commodities in the sense of hoarding them would be sheer foolishness.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I. Pg. 735.).

      The logic of capitalist accumulation demands that value be ceaselessly thrown back into the circuit, the perpetuum mobile, of production and circulation. Not even the highest 1% can afford to act outside this logic. If they try to defy it, they go under, and swiftly rejoin the so-called 99%.

      Sorry for the overlong comment.

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