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Marx's Update of Cultural Theory

From: Cultural Critique
65, Fall 2007
pp. 43-66 | 10.1353/cul.2007.0008

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Marx's Update of Cultural Theory

Here there is an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won, one chance of winning against a finite number of losing, and what you are staking is finite. That leaves no choice; wherever there is infinity, and where there are not infinite chances of losing against that of winning, there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain, just as likely to occur as a loss amounting to nothing.

—Blaise Pascal, "The Wager," Pensées

The unprecedented debts caused by the overflow of fictitious capital in postmillennial postmodern capitalism tend to create the impression that the current phase of capitalism is governed by fundamentally new laws and, as such, no longer can be grasped through Karl Marx's framework of political economy. To judge the truth of this impression, we must first differentiate between the two realms of cognition: the empirical and the transcendental. Marx's analysis of political economy pertains to the latter, and it is in this capacity that it provides cultural theory with the categories required for the analysis of culture.

Difference, Illusory and Real

Fictitious capital refers to the flow of capital not backed by any commodity transaction. What today is experienced as the "evil" of fictitious capital is seen as dating back to the increasing disjunction of economy from (industrial) production that took place in the second half of the twentieth century. In the postindustrial era of postmodern capital, economy shifted its center from industrial production to the sectors of technology and information, services, education, and human [End Page 43] relations—which is why current analyses of global capitalism refer to it also as informatized capitalism. And while fictitious capital was during that time still perceived as a financial paradise pregnant with profiteering promise—as evidenced in the dotcom hysteria—in its postmillennial phase, it reveals its "real face" as a cataclysmic disaster, capable of causing financial earthquakes such as Enron's fall, the deflation of the dotcom bubble, Argentina's declaration of the largest sovereign default in history, not to mention the financial and psychological toll taken by these and other relevant events on shareholders who have to take immense risks and live constantly under the threat or in the reality of debt.

Like in other aspects of culture and politics, in which the "evil" is always quickly isolated as a radical other from the rest of phenomena, here, too, fictitious capital is all too quickly singled out as a unique and aberrant exception to the norm of capital. Indeed, Marx himself differentiated fictitious capital not only from fixed or actual capital, but also from credit and, further, loans of capital, insofar as credit facilitates the purchase of commodities while loans of capital do not involve any commodity purchase. Yet, as Tom Bottomore points out, "in highly developed capitalist financial systems . . . credit and loan transactions have a similar form and are closely intertwined . . . the same institutions, such as banks, often acting as intermediaries in both kinds of transaction." Being effectively the same, both credit and "loans of capital . . . may also generate fictitious capital."1 In advanced capitalism, there are no longer any boundaries between credit, loans and fictitious capital.

Are, therefore, all three to be equally juxtaposed to fixed or actual capital? This does not seem to be the case, for, as Kojin Karatani writes of fixed capital, "money is itself already a kind of credit," that is, fictitious capital, as is evident in the fact that "a bank note (or check) is credit," a transaction in which payment remains virtual until an indefinite future date.2 Hence, what today is called fictitious or virtual capital is in truth what has always been called fixed or actual capital. This is something that Marx knew all too well, as is indicated by his insistence on not reducing fixed capital to its positive material existence. Although "capital gives itself its adequate form as use value within the production process only in the form of machinery and other material...