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«Material returns: Cultures of valuation, biofinancialisation and the autonomy of politics Simon Lilley & Dimitris Papadopoulos (University of ...»

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Material returns: Cultures of valuation, biofinancialisation and the autonomy of


Simon Lilley & Dimitris Papadopoulos (University of Leicester)

Journal Sociology


The ascent of biofinancialisation since the 1980s brought with it a culture of valuation that

spread well beyond financial markets and came to pervade everyday life, subjectivity, ecology

and materiality. At the same time, and as a response to the social conflicts of the previous

decades value production shifts to incorporate the extended lifeworld of working people, their networks of sociality and the commons. The paper examines the conflicts that emerge from the friction of the prevalent cultures of valuation and the extensive embodiment of value production and argues that biofinancialisation alters the very material infrastructure of bodies and forms of life. What is the autonomy of politics when biofinance becomes molecularised in code and in matter?

Keywords Autonomy of Politics, Biofinancialisation, Commons, Materiality, Science Fiction, Social Science, Social Studies of Finance, Terraformation, Valuation, Value Production Contact Details Simon Lilley University of Leicester, School of Management, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK Email: s.lilley@leicester.ac.uk Dimitris Papadopoulos (corresponding author) University of Leicester, School of Management, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK Email: d.papadopoulos@leicester.ac.uk 1 The current financialised regime of accumulation has become embodied in the very ontology of our everyday lives to such a large extent that even those social groups that are potentially able to challenge its legitimacy cannot do it without challenging their very existence. This is more than a mere intellectual problem, or an issue of (lack of) parrhesia, courage and social responsibility; 1 biofinancialisation--that is financialisation at the level of everyday life, subjectivity, ecology and materiality--is an issue that poses questions about the current architecture of control and about the prospects of taking exception to it.

The effect of biofinancialisation is that it has propelled the engulfment of large segments of Global North societies into a mode of existence that has changed the conditions for the articulation of social and political alternatives. Despite the predicament of politics that we are experiencing in the Global North and despite the powerful mobilisations that have shaken many countries since 2008, a turning point seems almost impossible. This situation is defined not only by economic and political exigencies but also by the fact that alternative forms of politics that were put in motion in the past decades seem unable to create fertile conditions for social change. We rely on readings from science and technology studies as well as the practices of recent social mobilisations in Global North societies and on science fiction literature to explore the meaning of politics in these conditions.

Social conflict and the culture of valuation Today's responses to the economic crisis have their roots in the ways the unruly social and political movements after the 1960s were gradually reinserted into the current biofinancialised regime of accumulation. The contentious mobilisations of the working classes and subaltern populations which started in the 1960s and 1970s put an end to the Fordist-Keynesian accumulation model by challenging the cultural, racial and sexual organisation of labour on a local and global scale. 2 These struggles transformed gradually and diversified through the 1980s and 1990s to a multiplicity of social mobilisations and conflicts that forced social regulation to reorganise itself in order to capture the new exiting subjectivities: migrant mobilisations, feminist struggles and social rights mobilisations, the alter-globalisation movement, ecological movements.

These contentious politics intensified with the relocation of production outside the Global North and with the elevation of financial markets to one of the primary engines for economic recovery after the crisis of the 1970s (Duménil and Lévy 2005). This crisis never ended in the destruction of value nor in the creation of a new system for the invigoration of demand by changing the living conditions of the populations through a new 'New Deal'.

Rather we entered into a perpetual crisis that paradoxically became the cause as well as the consequence of a new regime of social production dominated by stagnant wages, underemployment and the flexibilization of labour markets as well as of finance-led accumulation with the introduction of securitisation and increased consumer and corporate lending. Financialisation on the one hand and the deregulation of labour markets on the other became the key features of the neoliberal turn after the 1970s.

What is crucial for the argument of this paper is that these transformations are not mere instruments for social regulation or economic tools for counter-acting the socioeconomic troubles that took place after the 1970s. Their effects are far more important than 2 their economic performativity. In other words, the economic quandaries were not primarily resolved through financial means but through social, cultural and techno-material transformations (that were enhanced by new economic devices and accounting techniques) 3.

The virtualisation of the economy that dominated the post 1970s crises was not just an economic strategy. It is culture. Financialisation is culture. Not only because it came to pervade the everyday, as Randy Martin (2002) has described, 4 but also because it contributed to the consolidation of an ever expanding culture of financial valuation of goods and services (see for example Barbier and Hawkins 2012; Beckert and Aspers 2011). This is the tendency to translate disparate judgements about value to financial measurements that introduced a culture of valuation into everyday life. Any and all aspects of socio-material life and the environment enter into this indeterminate and unstable process of evaluation that feeds the movements of financial markets and financialised societies.

The underlying logic of the culture of (financial) valuation is that the worth of goods, things, activities and spaces can be essentially translated into financial evaluations. Although different scales of evaluation are by definition incommensurable the predominance of the culture of valuation in Global North societies presupposes and promotes that the worth of almost everything--including the present and future appreciation of assets, goods, services, intangibles, the health and subjective capacities of individuals, the physical environment, human artefacts, other species, urban space--is in principle transferable into one single logic of financial value that is potentially tradable in the market: this is biofinancialisation. 5 Neither valuation as such nor the cultures of valuation are novel and distinctive features of the current period; what is distinctive however is that the different forms of value--and, indeed, radically divergent values--are imagined as convertible into financial value. Financial value is here used to express the primacy of investment value over other values (aesthetic, use, moral, ecological, material, cultural) that predominantly assess the future monetary profit to be gained from potentially any field of life or the environment. The principle of investment value hinges upon the belief that the future is exploitable.


The imaginary of measurable future value lies at the heart of the current culture of valuation that traverses many different fields of life. For example, we have investigated how young precarious workers 'invest' in themselves by shaping their current activities according to the possible future gains in unstable labour markets or how bio-matter of life is evaluated according to future monetary gains from its potentially scientific or commercial exploitations. 6 These are just two examples. What is crucial here is that value becomes an intrinsically indeterminate magnitude that has to be calculated by creating appropriate measuring tools 7 and then defended and negotiated between experts in designated public spaces or in the secluded spaces of the markets. Future value is by definition unpredictable and in order to be realized the actors involved need to experiment, to manage conflicting information and to create knowledge in action. 8 Future value and investment value are recombining other forms of value into a process of uncertainty. These valuation clashes and the frictions between different systems and scales of values constitute the emerging culture of valuation in biofinancial societies.

3 The ascendance of biofinancialisation and the concomitant culture of valuation goes hand in hand with another set of responses to the social conflicts and the crises of the 1970s and 1980s that thoroughly transformed the process of value production. Deregulation of labour markets, the retreat of organised labour, the collapse of Fordism, deindustrialisation and the steep increase of the service and retail sector over the steady decline of manufacturing as well as the proliferation of atypical and precarious labour--all become core features of the decline and transformation of industrial production in Global North societies into what many authors have described as a third stage in the development of the system of production. 9 Industrialism in the Global North became increasingly hybridised by the expansion of the service sector (professional high skilled work as well as low-paid, non-standard and insecure work), the rise of the knowledge and culture economy, the accumulation of wealth through the production of intangible goods and the extraction of surplus value from consumption, communication and social reproduction. The biofinancialised regime of accumulation relies on a double architecture of production: on the one hand it mobilises the existing system of value production in its industrial formation in order to regulate the immediate labour process (through the traditional system of wage labour and remuneration);

on the other hand it relies on the appropriation of broader aspects of social and material life, everyday activities, resources of cooperation, working people's general skills and subjective capacities that are not strictly involved in the immediate labour process. 10 The architecture of value production in biofinancial accumulation extends beyond the workplace and relies on the expropriation of res communes: the commons, common pool resources and common forms of sociality and relationality that are neither public nor private.

The commons does not only refer, as broadly used in social movements, to a possible social force that could resist its own expropriation but also constitutes, simultaneously, the underlying system of production of biofinancial accumulation. Biofinancialisation--the financialisation of life--is here specifically used to describe how the commons becomes the ground and the material substratum on which biofinancial accumulation thrives. Openly and commonly used infrastructures (information and communication technologies, collaboratively produced knowledge, cultural networks), the material commons and the environment as well as structures of cooperation, everyday sociality and exchange between producers and consumers make up some of the main sites of value production. Biofinancialisation flourishes because it extracts value from reproduction, distribution and consumption as well as other activities and the material surroundings which do not directly belong to the immediate sphere of production; and this is possible because appropriation of labour in the workplace is organised through the specificities of the lives of working people beyond the workplace itself.

Embodying value production

The externalisation of production from the workplace to the social and the material does not mean that the site of value production is transferred 'outside' living labour. Duration of the working day and increase of work are considered to be the main two dimensions which intensify the degree of appropriation of living labour. But this intensification of appropriation affects--and to a large extent entails and necessitates--a wider set of activities that extend beyond the immediate work related activities. One could say that the supposed intensification 4 of appropriation is complemented by its extensification. Value production expands across the whole existential conditions of living labour, the lines of fight and control multiply and traverse different domains of life.

Activities that people perform as part of their non-work life or secondary activities of their work life become directly productive. Beyond that it also means that working people mobilise multiple social and personal investments in order to be able to remain in the labour market (e.g. social relations, general skills, informal networks, ideas, their subjectivity, their mobility, their health, their self-organised structures for cooperation, their potential for development)--some of this is entailed in the 'final product' of their labour, but much remains outside of it. The epicentre of value production is the workplace, but it is only the epicentre.

If we would only focus on the workplace we would miss the important and sometimes defining broader conditions in which work and employment take place. 11 However, the extensified mode of value production does not mean that work becomes simply dispersed and socialised, that it moves outside the singular worker. It rather means that value production becomes embodied: it becomes an indissoluble characteristic of the whole situated social existence of each singular worker. The situated and embodied quality of work includes all things and artefacts that constitute the worlds in which we exist, our social relations as well as the broader networks of the commons that we rely on to maintain everyday life.

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