Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fiscal Polity; or, "What Does Occupy Cost Philly?"

I haven’t posted for some time because I’ve been finishing a dispatch for the SSRC Possible Futures project. Today I want to think about one dominant modality through which Occupy is represented in official media outlets—that is, the “cost” of Occupy to the municipalities in which occupations have taken place. I am curious about the very possibility of the question (“What does Occupy cost?”) and what this question indicates about political belonging and citizenship today.

Let’s say, quite simply, that fiscality is the modality through which the polity is made to appear in conditions of (neo)liberal capitalism. The question, “What does Occupy cost?” implicitly asks, “What does Occupy cost me, us, we who have contributed to the municipal fisc?” The who appears in the objective case (“me…us”) and as an effect of the what. The polity is subjectivated through the objectivity of accountancy. I stuttered on the “neo-” in “neoliberalism” because the process by which a polity figures itself through fiscal reform is nothing new—Magna Carta, anyone? But I do want to suggest that conditions of (neo)liberal parliamentarianism exacerbate the figurative function of the fisc.

I could make this claim historically. Following Parliamentary reform in 1832, which significantly (albeit modestly, by the standard of full suffrage) increased the British electorate, Richard Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League and his Financial Reform Association exploded in popularity. (To avoid lengthy explanations, the ACLL and FRA are the Tea Party’s ideological forerunners.) As Frank Trentmann’s Free Trade Nation suggests, Cobden’s liberal critique of British tariff and tax structure provided a political grammar for segments of society recently inducted into formal/institutional politics. This is in part because taxation was/is the primary modality through which “citizens” achieve recognition by the state. Let’s be clear: Cobden wanted to make sure that a greater portion of Britain’s net wealth would be available to private individuals for consumption—not tied up in supporting “corrupt” officials, the poor (c.f. Poor Law reform in 1834), or moribund colonies (c.f. the Sugar Duties Act of 1846). And thus the paradox: politics became the site where private individuals came to free themselves from the political, where the private (like private wealth, private consumption) could be shielded from political/state control. Fiscal representations (the budget, the debt) phenomenalize the polity as co-proprietors: this is our money. It also always represents the polity as co-proprietors of a failing, corrupt corporation. The solution is to “starve the beast,” to bring costs to zero. But in so doing, liberal critiques of the costs of the political threaten to render the polity a null-set. That is, if the liberal polity represents itself as a (too-great) monetary quantum, and if the solution is to bring this figure to zero, the polity works toward its own figurative dissolution, its own becoming-zero. If one defines the political as a site of cost-cutting, the disappearance of costs is the disappearance of the political. In a fantastic Liebestod, the liberal embraces the political at the moment of its death.

The (neo)liberal paradigm of the political is thus managerial efficiency. I’m struck by the fact that that fucking asshole, Bloomberg, lists “Entrepreneur” before “Mayor of New York City” in his biographical description on his Twitter feed. This won’t strike many as scandalous—after all, people voted for him because of his economic success, they wanted him to run NYC as one runs a profitable corporation, and, indeed, to refashion NYC as a city in which others would want to run corporations. The polity decided to make the telos of the political something exorbitant to the political, to transform the political into an instrument for capital accumulation. The efficient conduction of economic growth is now the “deliverable” of the political.

The question of costs is the mode by which the fiscal-polity attempts to contain the eruption of the political. And, let’s be clear, the monetary figures published by cities throughout the U.S. are figures—that is, metaphors that indicate nothing but that are set to work to capture the incalculability of the political. When Citizen Bob hears that Occupy Philly costs the city over a million dollars (the number released was more precise, thus more real), Bob imagines that that million dollars could have been better spent on a school, a bridge, or whatever; Citizen Palin declares it shouldn’t have been spent at all, but returned to consumer-citizens in the form of tax cuts. But the money that we’re talking about is not the same kind of money sitting in an interest-bearing bank account. Ramsey and Nutter didn’t—nor could they—run to an ATM to pay police overtime, and it’s not because a cash-strapped Philadelphia would have been overdrawing. The one million dollars are, first of all, so many accountancy units, not liquid funds with which I could buy 847938 vegan cheesesteaks. The public force of the numbers, their ability to enrage Citizens Bob and Palin, derives from the conflation of money-as-unit-of-account, money-as-medium-of-exchange, and money-as-wealth. Certainly, these modalities of money teeter into one another, but they’re not identical. The “costs” of the political, I’m suggesting, are purely notional at this point. Incalculablity drags as calculability. (Any transnational firm knows this: intra-corporate transfers of goods are priced for accountancy purposes, but without a market mechanism these prices are at best approximations. This is how slave plantations worked also. Thanks, dissertation!) And so the citation of the figure is merely a reinscription of the logic of fiscality against the incalculability of the political.

We live in incalculable times. If the bloat of finance capital has taught us nothing, it’s that the capitalist value-form has mutated beyond the value-form that Ricardo developed and Marx dissected. As Negri would put it, the declining purchase of the classical value-form exposes the coercion at the core of any capitalist regime—money is no longer indicative of value, it is simply a performative language of command. The subject positions that emerged in the composition/distribution of value (variable capital and constant capital, laborer and capitalist) come apart in a hyperfinanced world-system, insofar as money comes to valorize itself autotelically. (Money making money without the mediation of a commodity-value: M-M` instead of M-C-M`.) We could see Occupy as a response to the dissolution of capitalist forms of value and thus liberal forms of accountancy and calculability. Occupy camps refuse to count—or at least to count in available fiscal grammars. I’m sure that someone, somewhere is doing a costs/benefits analysis of Occupy Philly, placing the expense of police against the social services (like feeding the homeless, providing medical attention, and so on) provided on site. But these numbers could only be, as numbers today could only be, metaphorics. Nothing is being counted. Indeed, what we are seeing is a struggle over the ethics of incalculability—a struggle between a capitalism that now truly runs naked, without the cloak of the value-form covering its secret shame, its incalculable power of coercion, and a few thousand people who pitch tents and seek to reembed this incalculable power within an instituted democratic polity.

Meanwhile, Philly suburbanites will continue to be upset that the battle for control of the incalculable costs a quantum of cash.

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