Five Minutes With...

Five Minutes with Ivan Ascher (Part 1)

Ivan Ascher discusses his book, Portfolio Society: On the Capitalist Mode of Prediction, a bold extension of Marx’s Capital for the twenty-first century: at once a critique of modern finance and of the societies under its spell.

You suggest the excesses of capitalism might not have led to ruin for so many. As you write, “While it may be that the pursuit of profit is a defining constant in the history of capitalism, the precise forms of exploitation and predation that it produces are not.” Could you discuss this point?

What I meant is simply that we must distinguish between what is old and what is new in today’s financialized capitalism. While I take the pursuit of profit to be a constant in capitalism, almost by definition, I also think the specific terms under which this profit is pursued can vary. Specifically, where the wage relation was once the main site of both profit-making and political struggle, it now seems the credit relation has taken its place—at least in much of the global North.

What are your thoughts on Marx as a writer, and do you think it’s played a role in his ideas enduring?

There’s no doubt that Marx was a master stylist. You could even say he was a truly revolutionary stylist, in the sense that with the Manifesto, as Martin Puchner points out, Marx and Engels effectively created a new genre, a real “poetry of the revolution.” But it’s not just the Manifesto. Capital is also a literary masterpiece, and according to a new book by William Roberts, it was even modeled after Dante’s Inferno. As for the significance of all this for Marx’s legacy, it’s complicated… On the one hand, Marx’s rhetorical powers clearly played a role in mobilizing people for a certain revolutionary cause. On the other hand, Marx often wrote in an ironic mode, such that his meaning was sometimes lost – especially on those who may have been most committed to the cause. One thing is sure: Marx’s writing is difficult, but in ways that reward the patient reader, and allow for many different interpretations.

Who are some of your favorite Marxist scholars?

I don’t like to pick favorites, but if I had to name the books that most shaped my own thinking about Marx, they would have to include Louis Althusser’s Lire le Capital, Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination. But that doesn’t mean these authors or their admirers would ever recognize themselves in my own book! I gave Postone a draft of one of my chapters once, and he told me: “It’s very clear.” It wasn’t quite the compliment I was fishing for, but it was the best he could do, so I took it anyway.

You mention Margin Call as the best film that’s come out of the financial crisis – are there other works, whether novel, journalism or another kind – that you think have also captured it well?

I don’t read widely enough to give you an intelligent answer to that question, but some of my more literate friends could point you in the right direction. I personally learned a great deal from Annie McClanahan’s recent book, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First Century Culture. I would add, at the risk of revealing too much about myself, that South Park’s episode “Margaritaville” is excellent. It captures a lot of what went down in 2008 in a way that is both humorous and pedagogical, and also theologically astute. If doesn’t have anything to say about Marx, unfortunately, so you’ll still need to read my book.

Aside from Marx, the two figures you write about at the greatest length are Robinson Crusoe and Fabrice Tourre. Can you briefly explain what their cases illustrate about your argument?

As I was suggesting earlier, the content and form of Marx’s analysis in Capital are nearly inseparable. When I finally realized this, I realized also that my own argument would need its literary supports. You mention two of them. Fabrice Tourre is a former Goldman Sachs employee who was charged with securities fraud, and whose private correspondence and public trial serve as bookends for my argument. I hate to admit it, but over the course of writing I came to identify with him in various ways. I also ran into him once in downtown Chicago, and almost asked for an autograph. He was wearing a pink, buttoned-down shirt, untucked. Very dapper. Then there’s Robinson Crusoe, whom Marx also uses, and who helps me historicize different aspects of what I call the “capitalist mode of prediction.” But there’s one more character I would add to your list, namely Moneybags, the money-owner. In Marx’s book he appears as a cunning employer. In my book he reappears as a money-lender, or something like that. He’s probably the most important personification in this book. He’s also the most problematic, of course, but I won’t tell you how; you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.