Thursday, May 19, 2011

Life in the Bubble

In 2008, the JWTC series opened with a Symposium on Ernst Bloch. Here, Josh Comaroff from UCLA writes the second of three pieces from that conversation.

In a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, and in the wake of the widening sub-prime crisis, Eric Janszen made a disturbing assertion:

“There will and must be many more such booms, for without them the economy of the United States can no longer function. The bubble cycle has replaced the business cycle.”

With striking clarity, Janszen identifies three moments of hyperinflation, two of which have already imploded. The first was the famous Internet Economy of the late 1990s. The second was the sale of suspect mortgages to buyers who could not afford them. The third, currently in the first blush of youth, is already being termed the “NewNew New Economy”: alternative energy.

Each of these bubbles, it should be noted, involves a “predatory present” and a complexly calculated future. But they also rely upon a powerful “instinct for utopia.” The Internet Economy was, we will remember, to democratize the world through common access to information. Risky mortgages—and, more importantly, the financial instruments that made them possible—were realizing the dream of universal home-ownership. And renewable energy, even in the dubious form of Ethanol fuels, is perhaps the most utopian of the trio. It promises to deliver the clean, green future. It is perverse, indeed, to observe the language of 1968, of utopias connecting Ernst Bloch to Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord to Ian McHarg, smuggled under the mantle of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

It is interesting to note, moreover, the way in which utopian expectations occupy the very heart of this most crepuscular neo-liberal phenomenon, the speculative cycle. While it is now clearly understood that peripatetic capital enters and (rather dramatically) evacuates, the expectations of the bubble are quite the opposite. Seemingly out of step with their post-Modern moment, these hearken back to older myths of continual economic expansion. The Internet is not an economic boom, we are told, but “a new paradigm,” one to reset all the rules. A week before the big sell-off, an article appeared on CNN’s website asserting “Dow at 30,000? It’s looking more and more real!” The bubble is ever dependent upon claims that the current moment is utterly revolutionary, resistant to history. The “new thing” is so sui generis, and so fecund, that there is no reason to expect an end. The outputs dwarf the inputs; normative rules of capital (or nature) no longer apply.

But this is not only the story of three bubbles at global scale; rather, there is an illogic at work here that extends to more humble circumstances. Pyramid schemes, 419 scams, and the promises of Prosperity Gospels likewise offer means without end, rewards in striking disproportion to investments. These involve mysterious factors of multiplication (genius, faith, or courage). Their influence is limited neither to the so-called “First World” or to the “Global South.”

Rather than rehearse the threadbare utopias of political theory, then, we might wish to engage the possibility of utopia as a negative impulse: that which makes us rubes for old wine in newbottles. As always, the future provides the pretext for the present, and projected outcomes and anxieties perform elaborate work in the now. Is it possible that two complimentary poles—crisis and utopian rupture, disaster and the better tomorrow—are the operative ideologies for an emergent economic order, and specifically for that which trades at the intersection of volatility and confidence? That is, we may wish to ask: what exactly is utopia up to, out there?

Josh Comaroff (University of California-Los Angeles)