The Echo of Nothing

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We live in the age of infinite quantification. Everything we do, all our movements, our time, emotions, desires, anxieties, and social relationships, have been financialized by the system. The quantification of everything has found a sad paroxysm in the recent refugee deal between the EU and Turkey, in which even human life has been objectified and somehow became an exchange currency. Described as simple as possible, it means that for each Syrian refugee on the Greek Islands returned to Turkey, in exchange, a Syrian asylum seeker in Turkey will found a home in Europe. But politics and finance have never been that simple, and the moral and ethical questions of this agreement remain unsolved. When the word ‘exchange’ is connected with human lives, it seems that we are commodifying life and justice, and that the refugees question has been objectified until something merely statistical.

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The symbolic meaning of giving exchange value to a human life should be strong enough to stop here and try to rethink how we have reached this situation.

APTOPIX Macedonia Migrants
Refugees and migrants, entering Macedonia from Greece, 2016. Boris Grdanoski (Associated Press)

Finance and politics are obviously intertwined, and here we recall Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi when he stated [1] that governance is a keyword in the process of financialization of the world. And it is happening now, as we realise that the so-called ‘financial crisis’ is nothing more than a form of govern, and a logic consequence of Capitalism’s modus operandi.

Along this process of governing through crises, suddenly the money vanished from our pockets. We fiercely and enthusiastically posed ourselves to find creative ways to raise it. The promise of viral digital enthusiasm backing up our creations is rapidly revealing as a lottery available to few ones. Then we started sharing our things in order to trigger some little income for that. This have been branded as ‘sharing economy’. By doing so we helped to create a new elite that in turn, rarely share their things with us, but rather take profit from our compulsory digital activity. This translation of digital freedom into fierce competition an endless urgency match with the warnings of Slavoj Žižek when points that the ultimate impetus of capitalism “is likewise not to satisfy existing demands, but to create ever new demands so as to facilitate its continuous expanded reproduction.” [2]

Meanwhile, growth remains as the absolute priority for corporations and political agendas, and we have been immersed in the outright effect of acceleration, in which even our inner desires are transformed and moulded by the promises of smart cities and tracking of unlimited data, that dictate our wishes and actions. But those wishes and actions, including our time, emotions, and ideas have been objectified, transformed into goods with a given economic value. In this digital dimension, allegedly creative minds have been squeezing ideas in the search of the great next hype, that will drive up in an endless race for quantified “likes” and “shares”. The clickbait tendency or the ‘like economy’ inherent in the use of the social networks, are some of the clear manifestation of how our relationships and leisure time play an important role into this economic model, in which we are more worried about the next ‘like’ or comment—as we lead our life with anxious and repetitive behavior—[3] than to get to know the name of our nearest neighbor. The result is clear, we live resigned to accept the many manifestations of this anxiety, caused by the endless rhetorics and camouflage skills of the financial forces.

Capitalism_crop
Capitalism Rocks! Source: Atlas Shrugged Revisited

But try to imagine, just for a second, that the contradictory discourse of growth, austerity, and the rhetorics dictated by the market disappear. What would happen then?

This question was the main core of the research we started in 2013 for the Third Cycle of Think-Space, promoted by Zagreb Society of Architects [4]; which is now expanded and updated on this publication, presenting both theoretical works and projects, that poses on discussion the question if cities are able to evolve without money, and if so, which are the possible scenarios for a design or architectural practice manipulating the constraints and conditioning of economical forces.

In search of new welfare condition

When thinking on the real meaning of a welfare condition, where welfare has been based on the guaranteed income of working classes accompanied by a system of social services, it is evident that we can’t no longer think about this condition in the basis of the capitalist system we’re living in. The ultimate and most simple representation of capitalism is that one of paper money, no matter on which currency one thinks, or in which bank you’ll find it. The value of our knowledge, of our time, and our work is finally defined, measured and retributed by this symbol.

We have seen in the past recent years that some of the ideas suggested in the Think Space Cycle have finally occurred. Nowadays, we are increasingly confronted to the possibility of using different kind of human emotions as an exchange currency—i.e. exchanges based on fear and dread, as we pointed out to the UE-Turkey agreement, or the commodification of social anxiety, as in the ‘like economy’—, but still now, when thinking about that, our mental frameworks tremble, and our responses are diffuse and vague, wondering who will want to exchange any kind of good for greed, envy or fear. But at the same time, with the constant flows of information, hyper-connectivity, and digital paranoia, we are slowly accepting changes in our trade and funding schemes. Open Source networks, free access to information and knowledge, working collaborative structures, D.I.Y. alternatives, among others, are part of the social imaginary nowadays. But even in this context, some experimental projects that are envisioned to avoid the manipulations of the market, have demonstrated to be susceptible of the same kind of failures. One of the most known is the Bitcoin. The digital currency launched in 2009, has a troubled history—from the hacking of several exchange networks [which left debts of millions of dollars] to sophisticated money laundering schemes. Thus, there is also a need to demystify these practices, because very often, they are also based on the commodification of the homo laborans, referring to the prioritisation of the economic which has attended the rise of capitalism, as Arendt pointed on The Human Condition.

algorithmic trading
Sixty Seconds of Chaos. Source: Bloomberg

After this quest we are able to admit that we, acting solely as architects and designers, have little to do in conforming the forces that create the crisis conditions, and also can do little in directly reversing its effects. Following the crisis, architects have been identified as partners in crime of the greed shaping capitalism. Nevertheless, we can envision and propose different space management possibilities, and even suggest challenging and appealing fields of resistance. We are able to analyse programmatically, the power structures that construct the field of action of capitalism, and even identify the multiple faces it shows to adapt to specific site conditions. This identification could be a useful resource in order to articulate alternatives following new languages, metrics, and means of exchange. [5]

We still cannot live without money, but challenging its symbolism and its raison d’être could help us to outline new possibilities. Until now most of new economic dynamics—crowdfunding, DIY, and so on—seems nothing more than innovative engines to keep the system active. Because as long as our mental structures and collective imaginaries have been built intertwined with the capitalistic logics, all possible responses that we create within it, will keep sustaining the same system we want to change. Inasmuch as we recognize the dominance of money in our lives, and realize that plunder and dispossession are blatantly protected from those supposedly taking care of governance, we will be able to start questioning the conditions imposed as immutable starting points. This awareness of the pervading financialization that rules our lives, should be followed by an empathic immersion in our neighbour social conditions that could help us to get rid of one-size-fit standard formulas to apply in all situations, even in the form of schemes, ‘how-to’ manuals, smart data management, and citizenship laboratories.

Stock Market
The Old American Stock Exchange Trading Floor; ca. 1980’s. Photo: David C. Foster

Recalling Žižek again, “In some political constellations, such as the late capitalist dynamic that requires constant self-revolutionising to maintain the system, those who refuse to change anything are effectively the agents of true change: effecting a change in the very principle of change.” Thus, have you ever thought that the best way to subvert the system is to stop trying to subvert it, while going to the essential relation of affections with “the others” around you?

The idea above doesn’t solve the need to have a tool for transactions, but opens the possibility to stop measuring us through the lens of ‘having’ instead of ‘being’. To emancipate, we need to get rid of the languages and logics of the system, abandon the individualistic lessons of capitalism, and the notion of heroic ‘fighting against’ the system. Perhaps we simply need to give new meanings and other value to concepts such as trust, togetherness, and otherness, and let them affect our daily life.

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This essay was written for Desierto #4 ‘MONEY’, co-edited by Paper Architectural Histamine and dpr-barcelona. More info, here.

[1] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Uprising. On Poetry and Finance, semiotext(e), 2012.
[2] Slavoj Žižek, “The Wire, Or, What to Do in Non-Evental Times.” The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso 2012.
[3] Here we paraphrase Yo La Tengo’s ‘Automatic Doom’ appeared in Stuff Like That There. CD (Matador Records, 2015)
[4] The Think Space cycle MONEY had the invaluable help and experience of David Garcia (Territories), Pedro Gadanho (Culture and Society) and Keller Easterling (Environment); three contrasted and diverse profiles which made the search for answers a thought provoking process.
[5] As examples please consider the work of Keller Easterling on the power of infrastructure space, or Benjamin Bratton’s on the platforms configuring planetary-scale sovereignty.


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