Martijn Konings’ new, slim book, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism (Stanford, 2015) argues that progressives are losing the war against populist republicans by scolding people’s love of money instead of inciting their deep insertion into affective deployments of guilt, shame and compensatory practices in the face of debt, labor, and consumerism.
Progressives, Koning argues, are addicted to Karl Polanyi’s model that critiques money (capital) for its tendency to “disembed” from quotidian life and social concern. By this model, economic crises lead to a cry to “re-embed” money in social projects, that is, to forcibly subordinate the power of money to the needs of people. Konings calls this approach “idolatry critique” since to view money as disembedded and as subordinating the needs of people to money’s power is to treat money as an idol, a fetish. Konings draws on actor-network theory (Latour), affect studies (Berlant), and Peircean semiotics to suggest a different perspective on economics. Instead of insisting that money is a problematic “idol”, he suggests that money is always and inevitably an “icon”, a metonym or symbolic fragment that anchors a proliferating range of iterations, meanings and investments.
Pertinent for religion scholars, Konings disagrees with Weber’s claim that capitalism attenuates the sacred. Instead he cites Norman O. Brown’s 1959 claim in Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History that capitalism exhibits the “metamorphosis of the sacred” (6). Konings links this metamorphizing of the sacred to populist republicans who ardently advocate for specific ethical dispositions in order to properly discipline iconophilic relations with money. For populist republicans the task is not to destroy money or shrilly denounce it (as it is for progressives) but to put people’s shame and guilt to work through disciplined practices that counsel a servile relationship to debt, labor, and consumerism. Where progressives tell us to “sober up” and recognize our irrational attachment to this non-thing called money, populist republicans embrace the fact that money is both nothing and everything and simply requires the proper attitude to navigate its seductions and obligations. Konings is not always clear in the ways he expresses this latter point, but it seems to me he is stressing the fact that everyday people in everyday ways know both that money is fully conventional and also that any one person has absolutely zero ability to dismiss it as merely conventional. Money refers to nothing (or it refers to values that are aggregated and intangible) and yet money still can make the difference between life and death, or between a comfortable life and a miserable life. “Icons [like money] signify with immediacy, not owing to any transcendental normative force but because they pull at strings connected to networks of habitual practices, bodily entrenched associations, and unconscious dispositions.” (57) Thus, “Indexing our practices to icons [like money] allows us to tap into sources of unquestioned legitimacy, to partake of its performative powers and its ability to command belief.” (58)
I recently finished Aravind Agida’s The White Tiger, the title of which refers to an epithet given to the narrator-protagonist by a school inspector when protagonist was himself a schoolboy. Though he has grown up in a rural village of abject poverty the boy is so smart and so aggressive toward his learning that the inspector calls him a white tiger, “the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation” (30). He promises to send the boy to a better school, and he leaves Ashok with a copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s writings. The promise never pans out, of course, and Ashok proceeds to poke fun at the pacifist leader for the rest of his narration. The rural boy becomes a city driver for a rich man, a placid “traditional” servant who finally does tire of and develop rage against the circuits of shame, guilt, bribery and corruption in neoliberal India. But instead of turning into a progressive anti-capitalist radical, he takes an option Konings never discusses: he kills his employer, steals his money, changes his name and becomes himself a boss. He now is the one instigating habits of shame and guilt and submission on others. Far from Konings’ rather bland conclusion, The White Tiger seems a more apt and true take-away about the emotional logic of capitalism. Kill or be killed. Buy and control debt, and live a life of the global 1%, or be forever the debtor, and live the 99% life of fantasy, desire, and faith in promises that will never pan out. This stark dichotomy has generated a severe ambivalence about Agida’s book, but it is the ambivalence of disavowal. Most of us cannot bear the economic desperation of our times, and our disciplined escape into (further) consumer debt seems our only palliative. It seems in bad taste for Agida to point this out. But it seems also in bad taste for Konings to conclude with familiar platitudes about “the dynamics of human connectivity” (132).