Woke Capital and Fiat Culture

Yesterday, Claremont’s Center for the American Way of Life hosted an excoriating conference on woke capital, the first, I think, of its kind. Over the course of conversations that sprawled into the evening, I found myself unspooling the following reflections. 

When it comes to the economic issues bedeviling Americans most, what lurks behind all of them—from post-industrialization to immigration to automation—is financialization. Beyond the debasement of the currency and the elevation of spending to levels of abstraction and absurdity that unglue our economic life and sense of monetary value from anything tangibly real, financialization has contributed powerfully to what you might call the de-capitalization of the corporation. 

Under capitalism, the basic idea of business—of an economy as such—is that the exchange of goods and services for compensation at fair prices is given a comprehensible form and structure by the habits and mores of risk discernment: people save enough money to stake profitably on their own skill at making reasonable wagers about how fruitful an attempted investment is likely to be. 

Under financialization, the economy has become one where risk-discerning persons allocating capital have been replaced as the agents of business by risk-avoidant corporations allocating compliance.

In a world where debt is far greater a factor and more powerful a force in the economic system than capital, there is always less to do and less to do it with, but for the explosive growth of debt management and of the administrative rules that corporate bureaucracies can freely produce without having to allocate resources discerningly. Intriguingly, bureaucracies seem to violate the law of entropy: left alone, they continue to expand and fill the void with rules. 

Ultimately the nature of these rules is exposed as fundamentally arbitrary, however complex their ostensible relation to one another may be. At a certain point, as the rules of management approach infinity, their arbitrariness becomes conceptually insupportable; the same full faith and credit of the people within the rule system that is taxed to incredulity by the abstraction and absurdity of modern monetary practice is similarly pushed to the point of psychic break by a singularity of arbitrariness, a point at which, experientially, the system and its rules can’t be seen to become more fiat-based. 

This void of the unreal has cultural consequences. What we have seen in recent decades is a progressive involution of culture under our ruling class driven by the absurdity and abstraction of arbitrariness taken to a conceptual limit. The nourishing ordinary culture of normal people exchanging fairly-valued tangible goods and services has been dwarfed and now even punished by elite fiat culture, where habits and mores follow goods and services in becoming increasingly arbitrary—unintelligible acts of fiat with decreasing connection to our biological nature and our human soul. The why of value, attention, hype, power, influence, wealth, and control today is increasingly nakedly asserted as “because we said so,” not just at the level of compliance or management or rulemaking but at the level of culture itself—where the most marginal and even bizarre forms of identity are “tyrannizing the kairos” as Nietzsche said, slapping around the culture as if it were an abused woman, ordering her around to celebrate and indeed worship retributive race violence, violence against biological sex, violence against our most primal and fundamental categories of thought, etc., etc. 

This is all I think it is fair to say a situation that financialization has accelerated into our lives, even if the underlying cause is deeper still. It is impossible even to conceive of financialization without the rise of computation as the core of economic life. But today it is hard to say that fiat culture, with all its unsustainable absurdity, is the fate to which computation has doomed us. While our corporations have achieved their massive financialized power on the backs of computation, it is increasingly clear that computation itself stands in a more unnatural or unsustainable relation to corporation than at first appeared: computation is not (to return to Nietzsche’s metaphor) the “bitch” of corporation, no matter how gigantist the financialized organizations may be in size or self-identification. 

Interestingly, some major clues to the innate divergence between computation and corporation can be found in the very grammar of the words themselves. Corporation of course is, from the Latin, a whole made up of parts, a body, or rather something that, in this case, has been made or fashioned into a body; computation, also from the Latin, is—nearly the opposite—the act of counting or reckoning, not for the sake of unifying into a sum but to discriminate among items in a set, as (for instance) humans are said to be discriminated among on the Day of Reckoning. The operative Latin root is putare, meaning originally to prune—that is, to trim so as to make cleaner—although, by analogy the word also came to mean discriminating by judgment arising from belief or suspicion. 

Naturally the parts of any well-functioning body would work together properly due to a perpetual process of, so to speak, discrimination. But the rise of digital machines capable of performing computation in a distributed, disincarnate way should make plain that the power of automation today is the power to lift computation away from corporation. The power and efficacy—the productive power—of computation must no longer be slapped around by corporate persons or persons in corporations, especially those consumed by and consuming fiat culture underwritten by financialized absurdity. Normal people seeking to exchange their fairly-valued goods and services can now produce nourishing ordinary culture through a computational technology more powerful, more productive, and more palpably humane than the corporation. 

It may come as a surprise to realize that this technology is cryptocurrency, or at least a certain type of cryptocurrency; but the more you reflect on the fact of the matter, the less surprising it becomes. The real leap is to begin to see that, right now, the right kind of cryptocurrency looks increasingly like the only available means to break decisively with corporatist fiat culture and wrest our destinies back from its ruling class. 

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.