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  • Economies of Existence
  • Emily Apter (bio) and Martin Crowley (bio)

In 1979, two giants of French thought offered analyses of their contemporary conjuncture that would prove extraordinarily prescient over the following years. In his seminar at the Collège de France on the "Birth of Biopolitics," Michel Foucault examined the neoliberal economic theory of the German ordoliberals and the Chicago School, finding in this a new formation of the subject of political economy. The classical homo œconomicus of laissez-faire liberalism was, he found, being replaced by a subject summoned to be an "entrepreneur of the self," in the context of the generalization of the market form to all aspects of social relations.1 At the same time, Jean-François Lyotard's "report on knowledge," The Postmodern Condition, situated itself against the horizon of a newly dominant ethos of efficient productivity, whose slogan Lyotard formulated as: "Be functional, i.e., commensurable, or disappear."2

Between them, these precocious interventions identified the heart of the neoliberal transformation: the increasingly capillary monetization of human existence through new modes of differential evaluation, in the context of a newly expanded economics of general equivalence. In recent years, their insights have been developed and supplemented by examinations of the relation between ontology and the financialization of existence, focusing on notions of measured life, and its antithesis: that which is incalculable (by means of rational choice), unaccountable, non-capitalized, non-optimized, non-transcendent, non-equivalent or untranslatable as a measure of economic, political and existential value. Bruno Latour, in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, lends an object orientation to the quasi-religious credence assigned evaluation with the made-up term "value meter." "To tell the truth, we are very familiar with the paths through which economics transits: account books, balance sheets, pay stubs, statistical tools, trading rooms, Reuter screens, flowcharts, agendas, project management software, automated sales of shares, in short, what we can group under [End Page 3] the expression ALLOCATION KEYS, or, under the invented term VALUE METER—since it measures evaluations and values." He then contends: "The whole difficulty lies in not endowing these value meters and dispatch keys with virtues they lack."3 It is from the polysemy of the single word "value," that we glean our basic concept of "economies of existence."

Like French valeur or German Gewalt, value derives from the Latin valere meaning "to be strong, vigorous, in good health, to have force, to be able." In English these meanings are active in notions of test mechanism, economic rating, accrued interest, bond or securities investment, property appraisal, market worth, social status, ethical/moral duty or cultural value (as in one's value system or set of beliefs), but when opened up to linguistic pluralism the associations extend further to notions of economic value, as in Greek oikonomia (administration, management), the German cluster Wert (worth, surplus value), Geltung (validity, part of a general economy of the will to power, equilibrium), Schuld (debt, guilt), Beruf (work, vocation), the Russian sobornost' (collectivism), or the specific understanding of "utility" in Benthamite utilitarianism.4

Flash forward and the contemporary themes that emerge from this philological/philosophical nexus include the relation between concepts of work, employment, and leisure; the temporality of work 24/7 (and the formal-existential calibration of what Roland Barthes called "the daily grind"); the social distribution of income in a future characterized by pervasive automation; the impact of radical income inequality (often gendered, and invariably racialized), accompanied by a winner-takes-all competitive violence of the "one percent"; the relation (or non-relation) among categories of number and econometrics; the governance and monetization of existence via data analytics; the drive of the algorithm in banking, flash trades, derivatives markets, and predatory lending practices; the question of the ongoing viability of "symbolic capital" as a key construct of cultural economy, social-political rank and subjection; the emergence of technologies of self-tracking within the self-administered biopolitical governance of the entrepreneurial self; the infiltration of securitization protocols throughout increasingly privatized social space; the psychic collateral damage of the debt economy; the metaphysics and logic of "real abstraction"; the crisis of veridiction, consumer fraud, and credit-worthiness...