Shorting the Future: Preliminary Notes on Austerity and Violence

The economy is down/So you already know it’s gonna be a lot of hommies in the town.

—Jadakiss on “Broken Safety

At the edge of the Euro’s collapse, how are we to understand a kind of capitalism that seems to have no interest in its own medium-term future? George Soros of all people has called it a “self-reinforcing process of disintegration,” and that asshole knows something about crashing currencies to make a quick buck (see “The Legend of George Soros” in Krugman’s Return of Depression Economics.) In my last post, I referred offhand to penultimate accumulation, and I really like the idea. The way speculative markets work, investors who can correctly predict (and/or cause) any sort of major event can make a lot of money off it, even if that event is the collapse of Greece or the Euro or a wrathful god’s seven plagues. If you can take a short or long position (or both!) on anything, one man’s rain of misery is another’s profit opportunity.

Penultimate accumulation would be the move to grab any remaining unexploited opportunities as quickly as possible before the building falls down on everyone’s head. For the “self-reinforcing” part of the metaphor, pretend some of those in the building, after pulling out all the copper wiring, realize they could make a killing on load-bearing supports. The profits are biggest for the first one to take a beam, at which point the others are compelled to join in — after all, the building is about to fall! The sooner they grab what they can and leave, the better.

Since this logic is written on the wall, the smart money is on entropy. States at the edge of generalized social instability around unemployment institute austerity packages anyway, and smear the blood on the lintel in the hope that the traders will think those debts secured and pass them over tonight. The problem being that a state instituting austerity in the middle of an employment crisis is also a good target for shorting. As Paul Mason Tweeted: “S&P negwatch move on northeurope is logical; they r about to tie thmselves to fiscal discipline pact that wd have sunk economy if adhered to.” It’s a lose-lose because there’s quick money to be made off losers. If you don’t make it, someone else will.

I’ve thought since I moved to Bed-Stuy that the immiseration of the poor and working class could be best measured by the number of arrests at my subway stop*. It would certainly be a more realistic metric of how austerity is affecting people’s lives than unemployment is. At least twice a week I’ll walk down the stairs into the station to see a young black man or two sitting on the ground outside the turnstiles handcuffed as armed officers write tickets.

We know it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Public transportation is one of the places where America’s most dispossessed are corned into confrontation with the police, both though the over-patrolling of these enclosed public spaces where police operate with impunity, and the fare hikes that are a crucial element of austerity. The officers are there to enforce the promise made to the global markets: that America will cut from the most vulnerable. That’s the only way to ensure the cuts will be deep enough. The fare hike is inflation in the requirements for bodily circulation. A certain result of every increase is that a set of people who could afford to move through the city before — that is, whose circulation was profitable enough to facilitate — will no longer be able to do so without breaking the law. Locomotion is one of the defining aspects of animal life; biopolitics is about not only the state’s ability to let live, but also to let move.

Austerity kills. It kills by withdrawing crucial services from the people who need them, and it kills patrolling the ever advancing division between the rich and poor. Kenneth Harding was nineteen when he was shot in the back by transportation police in San Francisco. He was running from a two-dollar fare. Austerity necessitates enforcing a becoming-poor on a population set, and with poverty effectively criminalized, this means a becoming-criminal as well. The state and the traders know people will hop the turnstiles more when prices go up, and they know what those people will look like, and they know how little those lives are worth. (Jadakiss again: “funerals are still affordable.”) To use the popular label, the more the state allows and enables the one percent to break the law, the more the dangerous classes must be made to obey it.

*The other option was number of kids on my street looking longingly through the iron fence at the library’s locked doors. Perhaps there’s some sort of combined measure.

The results of the first survey of British rioters are emerging, and they are even clearer than I would have imagined. Eighty-five percent of those interviewed said policing was an important or very important factor. One twenty-year-old student said: “It’s how we get treated. Really and truly . . . How we get treated is fucked. So, people just had enough. If you keep getting poked, you’re gonna go mad. You’re gonna blow up.” From the Guardian:

Rioters recounted how they sought revenge against police. Many adopted the language of war when recalling the brutal confrontation they sought with the police in streets across England. One 29-year-old in London recalled rioting with “a battalion, a squadron, a whole section of men. A troop of men.”

Others described how they threw stones and bottles, rammed police with wheelie bins and shouted: “Fuck the police.” Some spoke of how they targeted police property, setting fire to and vandalising cars, vans and police stations, or deliberately tried to inflict injury on officers.

What appears to have been the result of this outpouring of anti-police attitudes was, for some at least, a five-day catharsis. Many spoke of being, “empowered and liberated” and paradoxically, while the streets burned, of being euphoric. Repeatedly, the rioters said their confrontations with police made them feel “powerful.”

That’s not looting, that’s a night of insurrection. And according to over 80 percent of those interviewed, it won’t be the last one. In the US, the strangeness of the historical moment can be marked by the quality of Katie Roiphe’s analysis of the racial politics of gentrifying Brooklyn: “At 3:15 on a Wednesday afternoon, the question is not why it looks like there is a revolution happening on this sleepy street, the question is why there is not.” If liberals don’t like the black bloc breaking Whole Foods windows, they should just wait. Neoliberalism isn’t pretty, what made anyone think this part would be?

The infinitely delayed debt is an American fantasy, no one should believe we’re going to get beyond capitalism without a massive redistribution of the pain inflicted for years on the least of us. Right now, at this moment, we have a chance to propose a politics for the outpouring of rage and hurt that all indications have coming soon. I think an anti-police and anti-state content is unavoidable — not that I would care to avoid it even if we could. There’s a short window to link the social instability whose beginning has already begun to an anti-capitalist politics, to collective — dare I say class — antagonisms, rather than the world of homo homini lupus crawling under the skin of capitalist civil society.