Science Fiction Studies

#141 = Volume 47, Part 2 = July 2020


Steven Shaviro

Money for Nothing

David M. Higgins and Hugh C. O’Connell, eds. Special issue: “Speculative Finance/Speculative Fiction.” CR: The New Centennial Review 19.1 (Spring 2019).301 pp. $35.

If social reality in the early twenty-first century has become increasingly science-fictional, this is the case not only due to technological advances, but also because of the economic processes that spurred those advances and that have in turn been supercharged by them. The time that we have come to call the Anthropocene is also the time of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Our world today is not just characterized by environmental devastation; it is also increasingly dominated and driven by trading in derivatives and other arcane financial instruments. These are elaborate forms of what used to be known as “futures contracts.” As David Higgins and Hugh O’Connell put it in their Introduction to this invaluable special issue of the New Centennial Review, “speculative finance and its always-looming debt crises are now the foundation of capitalist accumulation and the global world-system” (1). The art of speculating upon what the future may bring—which for the past century has been the work of science fiction—has now become a central feature of how the actually existing world-system works. Speculative finance, like speculative fiction, seeks to grasp the present moment retroactively, from the point of view of the future(s) to which it might give rise.

It is important to be clear about what the primacy of finance actually means. Marx’s famous formula for capitalist production is M-C-M: money is invested to produce commodities, which in turn are sold for a greater amount of money than was initially invested. Wealth is thereby increasingly accumulated in fewer and fewer hands. What allows this to happen, according to Marx, is the extraction of surplus value: workers are paid less than the value of the commodities that they produce and this difference is the source of profit. But today it seems that the whole process has been short-circuited. As Higgins and O’Connell put it, “the age of finance is thus characterized by the capitalist accumulation of profit without production: a move from M-C-M to M-M, where profit is attained through interest, rent, and circulation” (3).

In other words, it seems as if financial speculation directly comes out with more money than it initially puts in, without needing to go through the detour of the exploitation of workers and the production and sale of actual commodities. Today, financial institutions (such as Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs) and software companies (such as Google and Facebook) capture the biggest profits with their impalpable, immaterial services. Even companies still grounded in manufacturing (such as General Motors and Boeing—not to mention Apple, which makes hardware as well as software) use their physical products largely as platforms through which they can sell financial and other services, and extract rent through their control of so-called “intellectual property.” At the same time, large corporations increasingly tend to absorb their capital surpluses through stock buybacks, rather than by expanding production or investing in research and development.

Of course, this vision of profits emerging out of thin air is something of an illusion. The speculative financial economy could not function at all without the continuing industrial production of food, buildings, weapons, automobiles, phones, computers, fiber-optic cables, and so on. And workers in the developing world, who are actually engaged in this physical production, are poorly paid and ruthlessly exploited. But exploitation does not only take place on the factory floor. It is spread more generally throughout society. Every time I post on Facebook, for instance, or even just read other people’s postings there, I am in effect giving Facebook my time and attention for free. This is a resource from which they extract profits that are not shared with me. The seeming disappearance of the C between M and M is actually a generalization of the capitalist extraction of a surplus: it can now be drawn from circulation as well as from production, and from leisure as well as from labor. Just by participating in society at all, capital has me on call 24/7 and extracts value from everything I do.

Under these conditions, globalized capitalism as a whole is increasingly driven by the demands of finance, in its twin forms of speculation and debt. As Mathias Nilges insists in his essay for this volume, “financialization is not merely one aspect of the present; it defines the current stage of capitalism” (42). Mainstream economic theory claims that banks are simple intermediaries: according to this account, speculation and debt are supposed to merely facilitate the properly economic processes of production and exchange. But in fact, in our actually existing economy, production and consumption are themselves subordinated to the needs of ever-expanding financial operations. Investors seek out speculative opportunities more than they do productive ones. Money is poured into derivatives and other complex financial instruments, which are increasingly unmoored from the “underlying” productive activity to which they ostensibly refer. On the other side of the ledger, individual consumers increasingly find themselves buying on credit and devoting more and more of their earnings to the demands of debt repayment schedules. On both sides, the emphasis shifts from economic activity (production, distribution, and consumption) in the present to the promises and threats of activity in the future.

All aspects of life today are subject to financialization. In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1852), Marx famously wrote that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (146). But in a fully financialized world, the future, no less than the past, oppresses us like a nightmare. For speculative finance seeks to bind the future to the present, anticipating and preempting whatever it might bring. Though the future is intrinsically unknowable, its possibilities can be circumscribed in various ways. Whatever dangers and opportunities may come up for me in the next decade or so, my actions will be constrained by the continued necessity of paying off my considerable, and ever-increasing, consumer debt. (Thanks to Joe Biden, it is much harder than it used to be for anyone to write off their debts through bankruptcy). Banks and corporations, on the other hand, are able to use derivatives and other financial instruments in order to hedge their bets, so that they can extract a profit no matter what happens in the various markets. Furthermore, even if they do lose money despite all of these precautions, the government stands ready to reimburse them—as happened after the crash of 2008. Bankruptcy is a catastrophe for individuals, but it is more like a shot in the arm for corporations. On both sides—that of individuals and that of financial institutions—we are in effect plundering and impoverishing the future, in order to maintain our positions in the present. (Our disastrous environmental policies also operate according to this logic.)

If speculation about the future has long been the province of science fiction, it might seem today as if hedge funds and other financial institutions are beating science-fiction writers at their own game. As Sherryl Vint puts it, we find ourselves in a situation in which “speculative fiction and speculative finance operate according to similar narrative and imaginative strategies” (12). Another way to put all this is to observe that speculative fiction stands in much the same relation to conventional mimetic (“realist”) fiction as the economy of speculative finance does to the liberal industrial economy that preceded it. Both forms of speculation involve, as Vint says, “ways of making the world through discourse that has material effects on subjectivity, action, and notions of community” (18). Speculative finance is performative rather than constative; it seeks to preempt and predetermine the future, rather than merely depict it. In consequence, as Nilges tells us, “finance capital’s speculative logic and structure become a historically specific aesthetic problem for literature” (38). Financial operations are ubiquitous in the contemporary world; precisely because they stand behind everything, they cannot be located anywhere in particular. We cannot touch financial speculation or experience it directly; but we also cannot escape its logic, which permeates our lives and informs our most basic instincts and assumptions.

As Higgins and O’Connell say in their Introduction, “the virtual aspects of speculative finance trouble understanding and representation”; it is no easy task for “finance ... to be narrated in ways that make its violent abstractions perceptible” (4). But this is precisely why fictional speculation is so important. Science fiction is uniquely suited to get a handle on social processes that are so abstract and so diffusely ubiquitous that they cannot be experienced directly. The question informing this whole volume of essays is therefore the following: how can speculative fiction escape the dominant paradigm of finance, so as to imagine the future differently?

Sherryl Vint approaches this question most generally and broadly, in her essay on “Promissory Futures.” Science-fictional speculation is formally close to financial speculation, in that both seek to reach beyond the present in order to grasp possible futures. Both elaborate narratives in order to envision “possible futures” that are “based on elements in the present,” but that cannot actually be known in advance (26). And both financial and fictional forms of speculation are performative (rather than simply representational) since their articulation is an effort to bring about (or to block, in the case of dystopian speculation) the conditions that they envision. Speculative fiction cannot avoid sharing certain assumptions and habits of thought with speculative finance; but at best, sf can open up the very channels that financial instruments work to shut down: “while the discourses of speculative finance seek to narrow and constrain the possibilities for the future, channeling them into profitable—and ideally predictable—configurations, the discourse of speculative fiction can open the future to radical alterity, to change so alien that no one can hedge against it” (31).

Mathias Nilges’s article, “The Realism of Speculation,” takes a similar approach, considering how speculative fiction, because its assumptions parallel those of speculative finance, can offer us an “immanent critique” of the latter (38). Nilges shows how William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003) works through this process in formal terms as well as in terms of content. Gibson sets his ostensibly science-fiction novel in the present moment, thus playing off the conventions of literary realism against those of science fiction. In this way, he probes and inverts the structure through which speculative finance itself blurs the relation between present and future. Where finance works to “extend the speculative present as the dominant structure of the now,” Gibson’s novel conversely unearths “the possibilities” for a different future “that lie hidden within the present” (56).

The remaining essays in the volume all work in various ways to mobilize the performative dimension of fictional speculation noted by Vint and Nilges in order to displace finance capital’s death grip upon our imaginations, as well as upon our social reality. David Higgins’s “A Glorious Mythology of Loss” reads Alan Moore’s stupendous novel Jerusalem as a ritual exorcism and inversion of the malignancy of financial capitalism. The novel is at once extremely localized—it focuses on one small town in England—and radically extended—it explores the deep history behind contemporary financial despoliation and probes a network of conflicting forces that is mythological in its extent. Jerusalem is ultimately a “metatextual occult ritual,” Higgins writes, “with the aim of overturning the fundamental economic mythology built into the social fabric of late capitalism” (80-81).

The next piece in the volume, “The Great Dividuation” by Joel E. Mason, with Michael Hornblow and anique yael vered, explicitly presents itself as a “speculative theory-fiction interlude” (6), rather than an academic essay. This text combining prose and poetry at once depicts and enacts the opening of a “portal” through which the fragmentations enforced by financial control mechanisms are inverted into “circulation of value ... radical affirmation down to the roots, collective autonomy ... making fertile room for everything that has been enslaved” (98-99). In this way, it seeks the same sort of ritual effect as Moore’s novel, albeit on a much smaller scale. While I tend to be skeptical of the efficacy of such literary interventions, they at least point up the fact that the financial regime of capital itself requires an immense discursive, fictional apparatus in order to operate. The story reminds us that “an actual event is something you can’t see coming” (90); what separates speculative fiction at its most powerful from the fictions of speculative finance is that the former at least provides an opening to events beyond prediction and control.

Mark Soderstrom’s “Future Fluctuations” looks at how a number of recent speculative fictions offer extrapolations of current financial trends that work to “disrupt the core narrative” that supports the project of neoliberal finance (107). Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood (2013) explores a far-future world in which “money is more important than matter” (112) and repressive social institutions are anchored by debt obligations. Ian McDonald’s Luna series (2015-) explores a dystopian society on the Moon that is similarly founded on “increasing debt peonage for the many while the few enjoy the fruits of fictive finance” (116). At the same time, short stories by Rebecca Roanhorse and Priya Sharma oppose financial domination by “radically reclaiming the meaning of personhood and the right to be heard and understood,” building collective movements that oppose financialization (120). Finally, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) explicitly “gives us a utopian guidebook” for overthrowing the hegemony of big finance (122).

In his essay “The Novums of Fiscalmancy,” Hugh O’Connell gives us a dazzling dialectical reading of Ian Macdonald’s novel The Dervish House (2010). This book, with its depiction of a near-future Turkey, questions and opposes the oppression of financial hegemony. But at the same time, O’Connell argues, it “presents the logic of finance as a formal limit that its own speculative vision of futurity cannot surpass” (131). O’Connell relates this dilemma to the way that financial speculation, with its relentless innovation of new ways to extract surplus, in effect encompasses the logic of the novum that has long been taken to be the differentiating mark of science fiction. “The literal and figurative logic of the [financial] derivative” (140) underlies both the various plotlines of the novel and its broader vision of possible transcendence (142). The novel literalizes, and thus unveils, the metaphors of cyberspace-as-finance-capital that are characteristic of cyberpunk sf from the 1980s onward. The novel both powerfully exposes “finance as the very ground of existence” (151) and fails in its effort to envision a future beyond this ground.

Joshua Pearson returns to an earlier classic of science fiction in his essay on “Frank Herbert’s Dune and the Financialization of Heroic Masculinity.” Pearson closely examines the education of the novel’s protagonist-hero Paul Atreides. Herbert’s elaborate worldbuilding imagines a number of competing technologies of selfhood (as Foucault might well have called them). Pearson shows how the fusion and mutual adjustment of these technologies in Paul’s mind and body, as he moves from being an outcast to controlling the galaxy, makes him into a kind of exemplary neoliberal figure avant la lettre. Possibilities that were only nascent when Herbert published Dune in 1965 are crystallized in Paul in ways that presciently foreshadow the “insistently white and male sociopathic figures” (176) who dominate the neoliberal capitalist imaginary today.

Financialization has long been a potential at the heart of capitalism, even if it never in the past assumed as high a profile as it does today. Steve Asselin’s essay “Apocalypse, Inc.” looks at three early science-fiction stories that already, at the end of the nineteenth century, “envisioned ecological disasters arising from economic activity” and the deployment of new technologies (182). Already, in these stories, “financial and scientific speculation are ... presented as linked enterprises” (186). Extrapolating from nineteenth-century theories of the business cycle, these early sf writers anticipate the ways that capitalist economic activity, far from being self-equilibrating, continually hovers on the brink of disaster.

In their article “Trust Me,” Meghanne Flynn and Sarah Hardstaff look at how the logic of financial speculation overdetermines emotional and political considerations alike in two of the most popular YA franchises of recent years: Twilight (2005-2008) and The Hunger Games (2008-2010). The romantic heroines of both series operate according to a calculus of “risk and trust,” in which they must consider “how to hedge against a bad decision” in situations where their “emotional labor is presented as a form of high-risk speculation” (206). They must speculate both about their economic situations and about their romantic possibilities in love triangles. This is a deeply ambiguous situation, since by turning into speculative subjects, the young women in the stories are both enacting a capitalist logic and at the same time “resisting processes and structures that would turn them into commodities” as is the norm under patriarchy (213). By shifting the focus of speculative activity from the strictly economic realm to wider emotional spheres (the ones to which women have traditionally been relegated when denied their full economic rights), these works also undermine the neoliberal vision of Homo economicus, “the flat characters assumed by economic textbooks” (223-24).

Joe Conway’s “Currencies of Control” considers the politics of digitization, and especially the virtualization of the economy, from the viewpoint of the movie In Time (2011) and the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011). Both of these works trace “the history of capitalist experience as it shifts from an enclosed milieu of physical production into a seemingly more open, performative space of affective spectacle and immaterial labor” (237). Yet they both demonstrate how this transformation is not a liberation, but in many ways a more intensified form of oppression—one grounded in “human alienation from the material world in general and the most basic biological processes of one’s own life in particular” (233). Both works deal with this dilemma without finding a good way to resolve it. In Time concludes with “an aesthetically satisfying spectacle of eroticized violence,” and the Black Mirror episode suggests the possibility of “a natural environment capable of existing outside the Darwinian struggle for existence inside the market” (250). Yet both works also disturbingly suggest that these images of escape are themselves still “signature product[s] of the system” (250), helping to perpetuate rather than disrupt it.

David P. Pierson’s “Speculative Finance and Network Temporality” examines Duncan Jones’s science-fiction films Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011). Both films deal with the ways that “speculative finance and network time alter our basic sense of temporality” (256). The astronaut in Moon discovers that he is continually being worked to death and then resuscitated as a clone in order to perform the same labor all over again; the protagonist of Source Code is similarly compelled to live the same time sequence over and over again until he is able to discover the identity of a terrorist. Both protagonists are imprisoned in the “oppressive perpetual hyper now” of a financial-economic system grounded in never-repayable debt (264). They both seek ways to escape their economic enslavement; they are both partially successful, in that they evade the worst aspects of their predicaments, but are unable to disrupt the system that generates these conditions in the first place.

Marcia Klotz, in “Of Time Loops and Derivatives,” considers the financial logic embedded in Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction spectacular Interstellar (2014): “The time-traveling plot device that relies on knowledge of the future to stave off a present catastrophe follows the same logical structure as a financial instrument that has taken on supreme importance in today’s trading world: the derivative” (279). The paradoxical temporal loop that resolves the movie’s dilemma—an intervention from the future back into the past that bequeaths to that past the very information without which that future could not exist—in fact reproduces the circular logic by which derivative prices are calculated. The intervention of a future technology into the past elides “the moment of knowledge production, the actual labor of scientific discovery,” which alone could make that intervention possible. Klotz brilliantly demonstrates that this elision is formally identical to the way that financialized capitalism dissimulates the labor of production in the shift from Marx’s formula M-C-M to “finance’s foreshortened formula of M-M” (291-92). In this way, Interstellar gives us “redemptive fantasy” that is in fact based upon “a passive sense of human agency in the present” (295). Nolan’s film overtly celebrates the universal power of love, while at the same time consigning us to an inability to ever determine our own fates.

Taken together, the articles in this volume give us a variety of perspectives on the ways that financial and fictional speculations are inextricably interwoven today. They show us how the logic of financialization has not only regulated nearly every aspect of individual and social life, but also colonized our imaginations. But conversely, they also demonstrate how the speculative imagination, in the form of science fiction, among others, is crucial to any process of undoing this subjugation.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.” 1852. Surveys from Exile: Political Writings. Ed. David Fernbach. New York: Verso, 2010. 146-249.

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