Issue 3/2015 - Net section
Over the first week of May, timed to coincide with the opening of Expo2015 in Milan and the Biennale in Venice, a series of events took place between the two cities. The events, organized by social centers such as MACAO and S.a.L.E. Docks, bore the title Ab-Strike: A Science-Fiction Platform for an Abstract Strike. The week-long festival composed of panels, workshops, actions and exhibitions, addressed questions such as: how does one block the cultural industry? How does one damage the „event economy“? How does one overthrow the financial elite, sabotage crisis producing algorithms, and hinder the impoverishment of workers and enrichment of lobbies and speculators? Is it possible to fight financial abstraction with an abstract strike?
Among the events which took place under the Ab-Strike umbrella, was a five-day workshop and action against unpaid volunteer labor at Expo2015 initiated by a strange entity named Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative. Robin Hood claims to be „the black sheep of activist hedge funds which bends powers of finance to the production and protection of the common“. As a long-standing member of Italian autonomous nomadic institutions of higher learning and a recent member of the board of advisors to Robin Hood Cooperative, I joined Robin Hood’s open office together with Akseli Virtanen, chair of Robin Hood; Brett Scott (author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money http://suitpossum.blogspot.it/); Benjamin Lozano (from the Speculative Materialism website); Emanuele Braga (from MACAO) and other members of Robin Hood, such as Ana Fradique, Harri Homi, Pekko Kokisken, Teppo Vesikukka, Tere Valten, Gianluigi Biagini, and Ion Dumitrescu.
What is Robin Hood about then? What is a hedge fund doing at a festival looking to invent new forms of strikes that correspond to the conditions of hyper-precarity characterizing labor today?
As outlined in an interview with Akseli Virtanen, one of the founders and currently chair of the cooperative, Robin Hood’s genealogy takes us back to the activities of a group of young economists and PhD students based at the Helsinki School of Economics, which is now part of Aalto University. The narrow mindedness of the discipline of economics following the establishment of the hegemony of neoclassical economics is a well-known fact, which was suspended for a while in Finland. The freedom granted to this group to think about issues of economy, finance and organization outside of the approved conceptual framework constituted the milieu out of which Robin Hood was to emerge. The encounter with post-structuralist theory (from Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze to Bracha Ettinger), the translation of authors working in the Italian post-workerist tradition (from Antonio Negri and Christian Marazzi to Franco Berardi) and the interaction with the arts, all helped produce what seems to be an exciting intellectual endeavor, opening up new ways of thinking about the economy. Robin Hood was born out of the scattering of this Scandinavian thought collective, the withdrawal of support by Aalto University, the dismissal of Robin Hood’s co-founder by the university, and the re-establishment of the status quo. It is an attempt to translate these concepts and theories of the economy into a project that brings together precariousness and financialization in a challenging way.
The core of Robin Hood’s organization has been, until very recently, the parasite – an algorithm that has been trained on the data produced by the U.S. stock market over the past fifteen years. The algorithm has been developed, owned, and is operated by „parasite engineer“ Sakari Virkki. The algorithm operates on the basis of the mimetic theory of the stock market, which has been advanced especially by French economist Andrea Orléan and US economists such Robert J. Shiller. Such theorists argue that the stock market’s valuations are not produced by an „objective“ relationship to the underlying asset, but by the imitation-driven behavior of market operators, considered as a decentralized network characterized by the overwhelming power of a few large hubs. This notion, even if controversial, has already produced what many consider to be finance’s Holy Grail: an algorithm which can be shown to consistently produce high returns on investments simply by imitating the behavior of successful investors. Against all odds and all other teams and resources mobilized to achieve such result, at the moment RH’s algorithm is actually proving to work.
RH has been (until very recently) organized as a cooperative operating under Finnish law. Members pay a membership fee (two shares for a minimum value of 60 euros) and invest as much as they want into the fund. They also get to choose how much of such returns to appropriate and how much to return to the common pool. The money collected into the common pool is set aside to fund projects aiming „to produce and protect the common“. The procedure for allocating funding is experimental (at the moment, members can submit a project and a committee made of members randomly selected among volunteers decides). RH, then, claims to offer access to finance (hedging precarity), appropriating a portion of the financial flows and reinvesting them into an alternative economy. It is not part of the movement of „ethical finance“, in as much as it does not select investments on the basis of their ethical value, but aims to introduce a new kind of discourse and strategy into the debate around financialization.
Recently, a comrade asked me what was so special about Robin Hood, since the strategy of playing the stock market to make money to invest in the common is ultimately reinforcing the logic of financialization rather than supporting an alternative. This position, which is quite common amongst Marxist and leftist milieus, seems to me to be based on a reading of financialization that sees it as a kind of „false economy“ which is opposed to the real value-producing activities of labor. But what if, following the lead of post-workerist Marxism, we thought about financialization as the answer of capital to the new conditions for the production of value which are no longer exclusively contained in wage-labor relations, and hence released from the classical labor theory of value? What if financialization was the „communism of capital“ as described by Paolo Virno, Antonio Negri and Christian Marazzi? In different ways, these authors have claimed that the transformation of the capitalist mode of production increasingly poses the ‚common’ or ‚social cooperation’ as the source of value. At the same time, as Carlo Vercellone and Andrea Fumagalli have also argued, the reliance of the production of value on social labor is undermined by the extension of the capitalist logic of valorization to social cooperation. Just think about the taming of creativity in the art market, the exhaustion of intellectual work in neoliberalized schools and university, the containment of users’ invention in standardised social networking sites, and the corruption of care by market-centred approaches to health services. Thus the communism of capital refers to a situation where capital poses the sociality of labor as source of value, while maintaining a firm control over allocation of income and investment through the grip that financialisation exercises over social life. Accumulation today proceeds through the exploitation of social cooperation, the extraction of surplus value as profit, the monetary and subjective impoverishment of working and living conditions for the many. What if the future of production is the positing of a social and economic space, which precedes the division of labor and which can no longer be just compensated by wages, but rather requires a new distribution of risk and liquidity, cash flows and optionalities? Can capital be turned into the common through the inventions produced by social cooperation?
As Robin Hood proceeds to what might be an even more controversial stance by adopting the Blockchain technologies developed by Ethereum along with seeking and expansion of capital investment, it seems to me that regardless of the future, which is by definition uncertain, RH has already reached an important achievement. I would like to recount an episode, which struck me as significant. One day, a few weeks ago, I was sitting in my flat together with two members of the initiative Napoli per Kobane, drafting with them our application to Robin Hood for funding to support the re-construction of the School for Democracy, that is a space for the social development of a practice of democracy, in the regions of Rojava engaged in the struggle against ISIS. While drafting the simple exposition (just one page and a half) of the reasons why such political experiment was crucial to the development of the common. We commented on the strange feeling deriving from the possibility to access funding outside of the constraints, bureaucracies and limits of institutional organizations (from the EU to ONG), the strange elation caused by the thought that access to capital and liquidity could possibly not be mediated by capital and its minions, but self-produced. We have become used to asking for capital at the conditions set by the latter. What if capital could be generated and controlled immanently by social cooperation, what if money, as Toni Negri put it during the last day of the ab-strike week, was a medium of communication and the goal of class struggle today was to be redefined as the struggle for money to circulate in different ways? What if the production of wealth were subordinated to the production of new forms of freedom?
It is a tiny portion of capital, of course, that Robin Hood has been able to appropriate from the huge quantities circulating in the stock market, but this tiny portion funded, unconditionally, for the five days in Milan, the attempt to invent new forms of money, a new kind of economic space adequate to the production (and not exploitation) of the common of social cooperation. This is an incorporeal transformation, which also drives a number of other projects taking up the challenges of the relation between financialization and social cooperation (such as FairCoop and OmniCommon in Oakland, California). As Blockchain technologies relying on smart, self-enforcing contracts are set to also potentially increase the control of capital over the labor process (such as in employment contracts where payment of fees is exactly linked to performance and output), it seems important to learn how to understand this new terrain and create counter-weapons which operate at the crossing of the technical and the social, the automated and the subjective.
To join Robin Hood visit http://www.robinhoodcoop.org/members/sign_up
Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative will hold its open office in Milan between the 1st and 4th of May at MACAO.