In days past (say, the 1950s or -60s) we might of been rewarded for trying to put down foundations — a warm hearth, a solid education, a happy family, a fruitful career with a reliable company, a rewarding retirement and then off into the sunset. But life’s different now, far more different than it was even five years ago. The man or woman with the fewest ties, someone who refuses to sign contracts, create dependents and make promises, is going to come out the winner in this seemingly winnerless economy. A volatile, unpredictable economy demands a new class of nomadic professionals, a wandering, unsentimental cohort of single, childless men and women willing to follow the fluctuation of the dollar’s value like so many sharks in search of the elusive bait ball of whiting. They will comprise our new middle class.
The very idea of human capital suggests that the human in question has in her possession something that will entitle her to profits down the road. But I’m afraid that “human capital,” for all of its jazzy, ultra-contemporary ring, is just a version of Marxian labor power gussied up for a techno-oligopolic age. Being a locus of human capital doesn’t necessarily make one a capitalist. Her capital, like the worker’s labor power of Karl Marx’s time, depends on being sold into a market in which the advantage accrues to those with good old-fashioned capital.
What have I decided to do? Well, since nothing is so precious to me as my intellectual freedom, I’ve set aside 1,000-2,000 dollars a year that I can just assume will be stolen from me. It’s a special little savings account earmarked for all those banksters and pranksters that rule our economy and our country. That way I don’t have to think so hard about the possibility of being cheated, because I’ve assumed that someone already has cheated me and I just need to wait until they come to collect. It’s a form of defeatism, yes, but it’s also a recognition and acceptance of a new social and economic reality. I suspect some citizen of Soviet Russia felt much the same when he or she handed over an extra hundred rubles to procure a piece of meat or bread that should have sold at the advertised price. It was just part of life, that extra little tax to the parasites who clung to the social fabric like so many bedbugs on a futon in Queens.
Creative-class cities are places where exorbitant rents and difficult-to-crack job markets are used to protect precious aggregations of human capital, nullifying the hard work outsiders put in honing their skills and the benefits they might have received from their education at non-elite institutions.
Certainly many fortunes hung in the balance during the dark days of TARP, TALF, PPIP and the other bilious alphabet soups of the Great Panic of 2008. I can’t help but think, however, that it would’ve been better had the entire rotten edifice that is High Finance collapsed. At least then 2010 would have found America nearly two years into the rebuilding.
If the current recession has offered people any lesson, it has shown to what degree parallactic antinomies rule their lives. They must somehow hold in their mind rather massive contradictions. They must recognize, for instance, that from one point of view, that of most Establishment economists, capitalism, though imperfect, offers the best system for allocating scarce resources, thus bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. And they must also recognize that capitalism immiserates untold numbers of people, subordinating them to a regime which cheats them of the fair value of their labor. (What, after all, does the perma-intern model accomplish beyond the outright theft of interns’ time and effort?) From one point of view, the former appears valid; from another, the latter. And they appear so because they are so — equally incontrovertibly, yet equally irresolvable in terms of the other.
Because Florida’s prophecies depend crucially on the retrenchment of the metropolis as the center of the money economy in its new ready-for-primetime, fashion-forward iteration as driven by creativity as opposed to finance or industry, there arises the danger that, absent an alternative to the money economy, people of all classes creative or otherwise can expect little besides hearing once again the infernal question, “How much?”
If capital has run out of productive investments for making goods and services, and the cycle of expanding fictitious capital has played itself out for the time being, it may retrench by financing a manufacturing project that never ends — the production of the self, as carried out in the “social factory.” The postwar transition to consumerism initiated this transvaluation of value in the realm of consumption. Rather than imagining ourselves valuable for the traditional role we assume in our community, we instead try to discover and enlarge our subjectivity through publicized acts of consumption — be they conspicuous luxuries or altruistic acts or clever, innovative re-uses of goods, or what have you. We consume to create cool, which in turn reflects the glories of its creator. But from the point of view of capital, our acts of everyday self-realization are perceived as knowledge production for the information economy, elaborating the intricately woven code (as Jean Baudrillard calls it) that constitutes the symbolic value of brands and goods.
Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein and Metropolitan‘s Charlie Black share the sort of myopically grandiose perception of their class. For them, the value their class is made plain by its continued existence. Should their class disappear, Armageddon would ensue. Seas would boil. The moon would turn to blood. Stock options would go unexercised. It’s this inflated sense of vital necessity which lay behind Blankfein’s bloviation and Charlie Black’s lucubration. Ultimately, it underwrites the sense of the unique tragedy attending the urbanite bourgeoisie’s decline, as well as the logic of “Too big to fail” and the ex cathedra decree of “doing God’s work.” Apparently no longer content with being known as “Government Sachs” for the various former executives who now stride Washington D. C.’s corridors of power, Blankfein and his merry band seek nothing less than the foundation of one holy catholic and apostolic church, consecrated to Mammon, their tribal deity, who demands regular bloodletting and smoldering hecatombs.
The density of social relations necessarily complicates economic transactions, but the results from this are not necessarily positive or negative, just difficult to predict or extrapolate from. In some cases, social relations become social capital — the golf games among the power elite; the inside information passed at lunches. In some case they engender sweetheart deals between contractors. They preempt excessive lawyering. In other cases they constitute an insulating web protecting a community from outsiders. Social relations prompt mimetic purchasing, determine the relative value of positional goods and the degree of conspicuous consumption, the general usefulness of consumerism in signaling. (If no one sees you in your American Apparel, was it worth putting it on?) Social relations likely amplify the biases identified by behavioral economics. All these contingencies play into how goods are priced, contracts are drawn up, and arrangements are settled — rendering supply-demand-equilibrium models much less useful in explaining actual economic behavior.