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Politics, Economics

Portfolio Society: On the Capitalist Mode of Prediction

Ivan Ascher


192 pp

Published: September 2016

6 x 8



ISBN: 9781935408741

As financial markets expand and continue to refashion the world in their own image, the wealth of capitalist societies no longer presents itself as it did to Karl Marx in the nineteenth century, as a “monstrous collection of commodities.” Instead, it appears as an equally monstrous collection of financial securities, and the critique of political economy must proceed accordingly. But what would it mean to write Capital in the twenty-first century?

Are we really to believe that risk, rather than labor, is now regarded as the true fount of economic value? Likewise, can it truly be the case that the credit relation — at least in the global North — has replaced the wage relation as the key site of exploitation and political struggle? And finally, if precarity is indeed the name of today’s proletarian condition, what possible future does it actually portend, what analysis does it require?

Through a series of creative substitutions, Ascher’s Portfolio Society extends Marx’s critical project in bold and unexpected ways. In this work, Ascher demystifies crucial dimensions of contemporary finance and considers the predicaments of societies whose own future is now shaped by volatile financial markets.

“I have never seen restrained horror, gallows humor, and elegant prose so deftly combined in political theory.” — Frank Pasquale

In the end, we may find that much has changed and much has not; relations of domination still endure, and mystifications do abound; but the devil is in the details, and that is where Ascher would have us dwell. At once a critique of modern finance and of the societies under its spell, Portfolio Society succeeds in revealing the potential limits of Capital, while reveling still in its limitless potential.

Portfolio Society is a brilliant account of what happens when those at the commanding heights of the economy shift their focus from production to prediction. Rather than bother with the nitty-gritty of making things or providing services directly, they engage in bets on and scoring of those who do. Ascher exposes how this mode of investment transforms risk takers into risk shifters. Portfolio Society is a ‘history of the present,’ rendered as a thick and yet pellucid description of financial crises. Ascher paints our present conjuncture in expressionistic hues, fleetly dissecting the pat narratives of finance theory. I have never seen restrained horror, gallows humor, and elegant prose so deftly combined in political theory — and these stylistic achievements match the penetrating analysis in the work.”  — Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information

Portfolio Society is a fascinating and original contribution to the social theory of finance. Resituating Marxian analysis in a capitalist landscape thoroughly transformed by and through financial instruments, Ascher provides a persuasive critique of contemporary culture, politics, and economy. Essential reading for all scholars interested in the financial economy and the relations of capital it embodies.”  — Caitlin Zaloom, author of Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London

“How can Marx help us to renegotiate class, discipline, suffering, and risk in the age of finance capital? In this fascinating book Ivan Ascher shows how. People are forced to participate in the lower reaches of risk society, supporting a system that obscures its workings as it distributes risk and discipline downward. Ascher writes in a lucid, limpid prose that deepens and informs the intuitions of many about the strange power and fragility of ‘portfolio society.’ An indispensable book for political economists, political theorists, and critical citizens.”  — William E. Connolly, author of The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism