Operative Thought


Annual lecture series on the political practices of ideas by Michel Feher, Visiting Professor 2013-2015.

Hosted by the Department of Visual Cultures, Centre for Research Architecture and Forensic Architecture.

The Age of Appreciation: Lectures on the Neoliberal Condition

In the last three decades, neoliberalism has defined a brave new capitalist world – a world in which financial markets preside over the allocation of resources. Under neoliberal capitalism, investors are not only allowed to reap an exorbitant rent from the production of others: they are also invested with the power to decide what is worth producing. In addition to siphoning off wealth, financial institutions establish the criteria that shape the business plans of corporations and the budgets of elected governments.

This lecture series purports to show that the rule of investors proves as transformative of personal motivation and conduct as of corporate management and statecraft. I will argue that, just like in the past with other shifts in governing practices, a new representation of human potential and human frailties – a distinctively neoliberal perspective on the human condition – is implicated in the financial turn of capitalism. 

Throughout the liberal era, from the age of Adam Smith to the Fordist period, governing agencies assumed that, while driven by the amoral urge to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, people were also endowed with two civilizing dispositions: an instrumental reason that made them capable of turning their potentially conflicting desires into mutually profitable transactions and a yearning for sympathetic recognition that enabled them to turn their selfish impulses into reciprocal solicitude. 

By contrast, I shall claim that the subjects who are at once presupposed and targeted by neoliberal institutions are expected to have very different priorities: they are allegedly more eager to enhance their credit than to make a profit, more preoccupied with shoring up their self-esteem than with optimizing their satisfaction, and more inclined to stake their social life on what they share than on what they exchange with others.

Insofar as neoliberal policies have been instrumental in the advent of this neoliberal condition, it would seem that resisting the former is tantamount to rejecting the latter. However, the political purpose of this lectures series is to advocate just the opposite. My contention is that embracing the expectations of neoliberal agencies is what empowers us to challenge their rule. 

Just as the labor movement of the industrial era assumed the status of employee in order to confront exploitative employers, I will argue that facing up to investors requires today’s activists to embrace the condition of “investee”. Since investors rule by means of deciding who deserves to be invested in – who is worthy of being an investee – it is only by challenging them on their own turf – the financial markets – and with their own weapons – speculations against what they value – that their hegemony can be checked. Delineating the realm of investee activism and assessing the stakes is thus the final purpose of these lectures.

See below for videos of the lectures.

Investee Activism Workshop with Michel Feher

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Over the duration of Michel Feher's time at Goldsmiths he will run a workshop around Investee Activism.

Starting with the onset of the neoliberal era, there has been a gradual yet decisive change of emphasis in the critiques leveled at capitalism. Once centered on corporate profits, they are now primarily aimed at the conditions under which financial institutions allocate credit. Though critics have hardly ceased to denounce the exploitation of workers by their employers, investors’ demandsare arguably what fuel the most vehement, and widespread, protests.

In the socialist tradition, exploitation has always referred to the conditions of employment under capitalism. The so-called “free” workers, whose labor is constituted as a commodity that they seek to sell, are exploited insofar as their wages are inferior to the exchange value of the wealth they produce, thereby enabling their employer to make a profit. Investors, however, do not easily fit into this description of capitalist exploitation. Their distinctive prerogative resides in the allocation of capital, rather than the extortion of income: accreditation, more than appropriation, is their specific business.

In light of this functional difference between the credit-giving investor and the profit-making employer, the current hegemony of financial markets is bound to alter both the critique of capitalism and the forms of activism that it fuels. Focusing on a kind of harm other than exploitation necessarily leads to defining a harmed party other than the exploited worker and an object of resistance other than exploitative conditions of employment. Since investors exercise the power to assess and decide which projects are worthy of being funded, the people who are subjected to their assessments and decisions are not employees but “investees”. And since these investees are exposed to speculations about their bankability, their specific stake is not to challenge the conditions under which they are employed but the criteria according to which they are rated.

The purpose of this workshop is to delineate the domain of “investee activism”: it involves identifying the specific mode of social antagonism defined by each financial market – stakeholder activism in the stock market, borrower activism in the bond market, collateral guarantor activism in the derivatives market –, surveying the existing cases of social movements predicated on the investor vs. investee nexus – especially in the wake of the real estate and banking crises of 2008 – and speculating on the potential development of such activism. 

Investee activism workshop resources/links are at the bottom of this page.

Suggested reading

Feher, Michel. “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” Public Culture 21:1 2009

Feher, Michel. "La Titrisation De La Politique Gouvernementale." Vacarme. 23 June 2010.

Feher, Michel. "Nous Sommes La Bourse." Vacarme. 8 Nov. 2010.

Feher, Michel. "Retour Vers Le Futur Proche." Vacarme. 19 Apr. 2010.

Michel Feher is a philosopher who has taught at the École Nationale Supérieure, Paris, and at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the publisher and a founding editor  of Zone Books, NY (in 1986) as well as the president and co-founder of Cette France-là, Paris (in 2008), a monitoring group on French immigration policy. He is the author of Powerless by Design: The Age of the International Community (2000) and the co-editor of Nongovernmental Politics (2007), with Gaëlle Krikorian and Yates McKee. He most recently co-authored, with Cette France-là, Xénophobie d’en haut: le choix d’une droite éhontée and Sans-papiers et préfets: la culture du résultat en portraits (2012).


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