Welcome to the Wild Side of Finance – Interview with Akseli Virtanen

By Emanuele Braga, May 2015

1) The idea of Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative was born in Helsinki by a group of artists, economists and philosophers. From the political and social perspective this is one of the first cases in which we face the financial market in both an affirmative and alternative way. You created a “parasite algorithm” in order to provide resources from the financial market also to the people excluded from it.  Could you describe how this approach mixes performative aspects with new technology and aesthetics?

When Robin Hood released its minor asset management protocol two and a half years ago it was simultaneously introducing three radical things.

First, we affirmed that there is no outside to financialization, that there are no financial virgins, and took this as a serious starting point for our politics and economics. We are all already part of the financial asset accumulation, no matter who we are or how much or little money we have. This economics included understanding that money is not something bad, but on the contrary, it’s good to have access to it and be able to manage its flows. And labor and work is not the sphere where this takes place anymore.

Then, by creating in our portfolio a synthetic replica of the emerging conventions of the financial elite at the market, we created a simulacrum, a monstrous false power, whose repetition yielded a difference in kind. A bad copy of the financial asset accumulation model opened suddenly into something else and overturned the grounds on which any distinction between a copy and an original could really stand. We copied their means of production – their knowledge, relations, positions – and used them in a way that did not belong to the orthodox economic space. This is what we called minor asset management (see Democratizing the power of finance)

Thirdly, this showed that it is possible to reengineer finance, cash and risk flows, flows of dependencies and potentialities, to work with its materiality, with the divergent capacities lying latent but definitely built-into its matter. And that we have the power and imagination to do this. We showed that financial technologies are in fact moldable, plastic, synthetic – just waiting for an artist’s touch to make them start producing something else than debt. Finance as our material and medium, we attach directly to art’s power to create unforeseen, previously unknown and unthinkable economic, political, social, incorporeal processes.

2) By the performance of its portfolio Robin Hood Cooperative supports then projects with a social and political impact. Can you tell some examples, and can you explain how do you choose the project to support?

We call ourselves also a counter-investment bank of the precariat. Our members each decide independently which part of their return they want to reinvest in the common pool from which we invest. The members also propose different commons-building projects they think are important. Members can then volunteer to the selection committee of three randomly chosen members who decide where we invest that year. The projects must always be generative and expansive, generating growth in subjectivity, in possibilities, in organization, in sharing, in scale, in mobility, in access, in independence. We invest in growth.

This year there are over 50 projects proposed. Every one of them wonderful, including projects for creating an incubator for collaborative economy and P2P production, reconstructing a school for democracy in Kobane in Kurdistan, a geo-tagged guerrilla carbon offset program, creation of a local radio station to break media dominance of a gold mining company which is destroying environment in Greece, tools for reverse engineering financial technologies, suicide intervention skills training program, acquiring working tools for a group of deaf carpenters in North Korea, means of production for a workers’ collective to reopen a factory, water and sanitation improvement process in Zambia, creation of collective memory in the form of a huge free online repository of user-contributed books, hostel for young homeless people in England, meeting place for asylum seekers and refugees in London…. and this is just the beginning of the list. You can check the projects at our website: www.robinhoodcoop.org

Investment in these projects is a very concrete opening of the field possible. Already a possibility like this starts to produce incorporeal transformation, like Tiziana Terranova recently wrote (The Tale of Robin Hood Retold). A becoming. This is the real business of Robin Hood.

To join Robin Hood: http://www.robinhoodcoop.org/members/sign_up

3) Robin Hood is affirming that the financial market is a field of experimentation: a space we all could occupy and self-manage! This is a very important symbolic gesture. We all know that the amount of money managed through speculation is far more than the real economy reserves, the financial system assisting an increasing process of extracting value. Due to this, even in the western countries we have less and less welfare state structures, more and more labor precarisation, and erosion of the middle class. How is Robin Hood building systems of equity in the financial sphere?

Yes, we can help you to build your personal hedge fund if you want, build it an engine “powered by Robin Hood”. Think about it, what you could do with it.

There is an asymmetrical division between those who are able to create money by transforming it into financial capital (to earn money without a necessity to work) and those whose only access to money is to work, possibly at any cost and condition – or first take debt, and then work. Or maybe work first with no payment at all, as we have seen in the case of Universal EXPO 2015 in Milan.

Furthermore, these two forms of money, the money you get for doing work (money as means of payment, money as means of exchange), and money as capital, have very different powers. Or more precisely, the former has no power at all, it is money castrated of any power, while the latter has a power to organize and command future, to reduce and submit what will be (all potentiality, change) into what is now (existing power relationship). Robin Hood is a strategic means to challenge this mechanism of limiting our future. We offer also this other group of people a possibility of income which is not tied to the necessity to work. An access to money as capital. Turning your money into shared means of production. This is the sphere of new equity production where we operate. It is a very concrete opening of the field of possible. That is why we can talk about democratization of the power of finance. Or of profanation of finance: of taking something sacred, which we are not able or allowed to touch, or which only the priests can touch and understand, and returning it to common use and play.

It is also important to understand that it is our collective capacity to assume debt and pay taxes and be the direct bearer of austerity measures that creates direct vehicles for financial asset accumulation. Governments downsize and cut spending everywhere for one simple reason: to be able to borrow more. The increasing supply of government bonds – which are the major instrument for this borrowing, the safe means for capital preservation and allow the pricing of riskier financial instruments like derivatives – is possible only through deficit cuts and excluding all inflationary spending. It is like the financial equivalent of raw material for industrial production. In financial economy, the surplus is extracted more directly from our collective capacity to become more indebted and pay taxes than from the stagnating number of people employed to goods and services production. Or to put it shortly: the growth in the forms of indebtedness is the condition for financial capital accumulation, just like expansion of labor force participation was for expanding commodity production. That is why demands for better wages and better working conditions and sharing the productivity gains are today so irrelevant, they are not the choking points for capital accumulation at all. The financial alchemy of turning uncertainty into rent operates very differently.

That is why, even if our strategy is the same as it was for us 600 years ago in Sherwood – to attack the routes of wealth appropriated from the people – our methods are different: we do now big data, use algorithms and financial technology, follow transactions at the stock exchanges, make databanks of the members of financial elite, deconstruct them from individuals into dividuals, use blockchains and structured finance to share their most important means of production to everyone.

Interesting theorists and friends like Christian Marazzi, Carlo Vercellone, Andrea Fumagalli, and Stefano Lucarelli have been writing how money in its finance form escapes the public control, the control of monetary institutions like central banks, and becomes a prisoner of the conventions of the oligarchy of the financial market. Robin Hood works with the emergence and exploitation of the conventions of the oligarchy at the financial market: we place our tax on the exploitation of our collective ability to pay taxes, to bear austerity measures and to become more indebted. Andrea and Stefano are absolutely right to say that the governance of the conventions at the market is the proxy of the expropriation of the common. Basically, we are taxing this expropriation. Turning it into production of new equity.

4) From Robin Hood 1.0 you are now creating a Robin Hood 2.0. You are going to release in the early autumn a White Paper, the draft title of which is  “Equity, Options, Assemblage – Robin Hood 2.0”. The Robin Hood project will be implemented with the blockchain technology, and the model of the decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), addressing the new border that a lot of start-up and political laboratory are experimenting in. We may imagine the possibility of an algorithmic multitude, the technological automatization of a self-managed and bottom-up production of value.  What are the main challenges in this field, currently? What are the risks?

I continue a little from the last answer. Algorithmic production and financialized economy operate already with component parts of subjectivity, our sensations, cognition, memory, physical force, intelligence, affects, tendencies, inclinations, not-yet-individuated potentialities. What the person “wants” or “wills” is here absolutely irrelevant. And we see this quite clearly: no matter what we say, vote, demonstrate, argue, occupy, strike… nothing changes. The new mechanisms of value production do not work with individual subjects, but with their deterritorialization into “dividuals” – meaning the human subject, on the one hand, as endlessly divisible to different data banks, and on the other, as deconstructed into its component parts and relations which are not unified in an “I”. That level does not involve representation or consciousness, it does not operate through repression or ideology, it takes us from the behind, from the inside, and from the outside, whether we wanted it or not. This is also much more efficient and effective way to organize the potentiality of our action and thought and relationships. In this sense economy is not anymore a matter of “economics”, it captures and exploits something much more profound: the process of singularization and modes of production of subjectivation. Robin Hood has elsewhere talked about the emergence and mechanisms of arbitrary power, power at the end of the economy, so I won’t go into this here (see Power at the End of the Economy. Discussion with Maurizio Lazzarato, Brian Massumi, Peter Pal Pelbart and Akseli Virtanen).

The biggest risk, I think, is that we don’t enter this space and don’t start thinking and producing our own devices and refrains – our own conditions, our own problems, our own becomings. In this case the subjectivity and relationships of sedentary economics and politics will be simply reproduced here, but now with much more efficient technology to exhaust all potentiality. This is happening already. The risk is also that we try to implement and continue with organizational and cooperative models which simply don’t correspond to our precarious subjectivity anymore (see Robin Hood is a New Concept; Exhaustion of Possible)

Our conclusion has been to start operating beyond persuasion, beyond mere meaningful communication, taking the game outside of identities and “self” and towards dividuals and trans-subjectivity, borderlinking and encounter-events, sympathy and fundamental distrust as the basis of organization. The important organizational game is played here and not at the rational-cognitive level. So the parasite algorithm Robin Hood uses for example makes up “databanks” of market actors. It gathers and selects millions of data on market actor behavior, purchases, habits, competences, inclinations, tastes, preferences. They have no idea how much we know about them. But this information concerns precisely “dividuals” whose profiles are mere relays of inputs and outputs in our production-consumption machine. “Dividuals” have only a statistical existence controlled by the parasite whose operations differ from the individualization carried out by “pastoral power” which is exercised on “real” individuals. I am sure you understand what I mean. We need to take advantage of the ongoing deterritorialization and move towards politics of dividualism and not try to return to a “subject of interest” or rely on programmatic politics of “cognitive persuasion” or fall back on mythical-conscious narratives of the “labor”, ”worker”, “employment”, “welfare”, etc. This means engaging financial capital where it draws its power: in its paradoxes, in its arbitrariness, in its machinic automatisms. I think simply that without devices that can operate on this level we are today without politics, incapable of speaking, of grasping, and intervening in processes and future of our life. What is at stake is the possibility of change as such.

5) With Robin Hood 2.0 you moving into developing new forms of cooperation, and you talk about new concepts like new equity, distributed capital, Non-Euclidean economic space, financial platform of the future?

We are now working on the release of Robin Hood 2.0. That is why I for example moved to Silicon Valley last year, and this is the reason why we gathered our crew now to Milan and Venice.

What we have done with the cooperative this far is only a beginning, it is our pilot, with which we wanted to test some things. We know now that it works. We know now that we have the power and imagination to reengineer financial technologies. We know now that we have available also new organizational tools to update the cooperative – which as an organizational form really belongs to the last century and workers’ self-organization within industrial capital – to the needs of this century and our subjectivity, as I said already earlier. We are ready to take on a new and more monstrous form.

Robin Hood 2.0 will be at the same time a repetition-of and differentiation-from Robin Hood 1.0. It will still concentrate in producing equity, options and assemblage to our denizens, but it will do this better, more creatively, more flexibly, more efficiently, more scalably, in more dimensions. We talk about distributed capital services for the non-Euclidean economic space. It may sound strange or even extravagant, but I assure you, it characterizes an economic space where we are already taking the first steps. It is an economic space which is not characterized by only limitations, austerity, scarcity, powerlessness, submission and frustration, but by continuous unfolding of possibilities, options, connections and creativity.

We are also talking about a financial platform of the future. It is not so much a “cooperative” but more like a rhizome. That is the social architecture what we are after. A more fluid, flexible and autonomous organization from which a heterogeneity of new options and possibilities can spring forth. Just money is very flat and base in relation to options, for example, in a “cooperative” the relations there are still very flat, passive, one dimensional, inflexible, non-liquid, offering not enough options, connections, dimensions. Instead we are building a moving rhizome of relations between individual or collective operators which is composed of living equity relations and creative partnerships. For this we don’t need a platform in the traditional, but in a new distributed sense. So, in a sense a distributed platform is just an distributed app with which you can use and operate and create the rhizome. The rhizome is not something separate from this.

The new product we are first preparing to launch is the “Hood Note”. It is a first generation Distributed Equity Note, engineered by our R&D team, fusing the concept of common equity with existing technologies in structured finance. It is something that has never been done before. It is a reengineering of the financial technology at the origin of the 2008 financial crises, but now for the purpose of producing equity, and not debt, for the basis of relationship and organization. Common equity or distributed equity are ways to make capital common, meaning that anyone can enter it from their own angle, to a concept of heterogeneity and difference, many different creating value by acting together without a need to become like the other or even know the other, without a need for a community, shared values or goals. This is organized by issuing the Hood Note as a blockchain-based smart contract. This has also never been done before. Basically the Hood Note is a non-cryptocurrency cryptoasset which is backed by our dynamic portfolio of the stocks of the best companies in the world, or more precisely, by our dynamic portfolio of the emerging conventions of the financial elite at the market. Welcome to the wild side of finance!

With the Hood Note, and with the PeerHood – which is the second new product in the pipeline, a kind of crowdfunding platform on steroids – we are now working further with potentiality that technologies of finance (synthetic finance, credit derivatives, securitization, and especially options technology) have build in them. They are synthetic, plastic, moldable, filled with topological capacities which are in effect just waiting for someone to start reengineering them for the production of a very different economic space. One that corresponds to the needs of the new economic operators, makers, co-creators, peers, collaborators, which are often also collective.

With the Hood Note and PeerHood Platform we are also working with the potentiality of blockchain technology. It is a technology ready-fitted for a rhizome model of economy by making possible and secure new kinds of direct relationships, transactions, exchanges. In blockchains relationships and transactions are collected in “blocks” and then “chained” together, comprising a visible, verifiable, digital, decentralized public history and record of the relationships. It is a cooperative system without any need of symbiosis, community, shared goal, or centralized organization, defined only by a circulation of states. Any coupling of operators, however diffuse and heterogeneous, using a blockchain to organize themselves, is immediately autonomous, digitally distributed consensus system, equipped with mechanisms for agreeing on the order and character of relationship – with no need or place for a centralizing authority. (see e.g. Ethereum Whitepaper). What we have understood is not that blockchain awakens us to some pre-existing possibilities, but that it creates a new space of possibilities in itself.

So if finance is potential, so is blockchain, organizationally. It opens a means to a transformation from our “cooperative” form to a more flexible, potential, plastic, open, rhizomatic organization, more akin to our subjectivity. And when we integrate it with structured and synthetic finance – which is the Hood Note, the PeerHood crowdfunding platform, the InterHood P2P money market and the whole Robin Hood Unlimited platform we are building – things start to happen. It is a financial platform of the future. Blockchain makes rhizomatic relationships possible, and by adding reengineered finance to it, we reengineer there also self-operating economic attractors for these relationships. Attractors that do not make relationships purely competitive, egoistic, based on a creditor/debtor relationship, or on rational decision making of utility optimizing and fully competent individuals, but fill them with different options, possibilities, sympathy and shared stakes about future.

Think about a financial platform of the future, owned and controlled by its users and operators. We are producing economic space itself. Not the Euclidean economic space in which only something preproduced is divided – you know, the space of which you hear the politicians and economic experts talk, where “you first have to produce the value with work… and only then there is something to distribute… and now not enough has been produced…. so there is no other way but to cut the costs” – but a nomadic space, a nomadic distribution where nothing pertains or belongs only to any person, but all persons are arrayed here and there in such a manner to cover the largest space and making the most things possible. A production of a different of economic space. The reorganization and redistribution of cash and risk flows and relationships Robin Hood 2.0 is carrying out is a production of new economic space. This is the meaning of distributed capital services. When capital gets distributed on a distributed platform it becomes nomadic and starts to make possible all kinds of new things: we give people tools to open this space.

6) Robin Hood’s  team is now working in a Temporary Office at Macao, in Milano. You are also developing a new approach into Universal EXPO2015 in Milan, and its vision of a gathering of the nations to offer scenarios on the global future. Which kind of future do we face? What will be the work, the material production, the social bonds, by your financial point of view? What is Rethink How project, and why are you interested in the EXPO2015?

We have been thinking about affects and faces of Robin Hood that correspond with what we’re constructing. In creating them we could fall back to the conventions of marketing, but marketing is not only costly, its style of messaging also consists mostly of passive and empty self-evidencies which we want to break, both politically and aesthetically. It would be an unimaginative path for us.

Rethink How is something different. Designed by our R&D team in cooperation with Macao, it is an experiment in engaging neoliberal financial economy in the paradoxes where it draws its power. These paradoxes are often subjective which makes them difficult. You know, it used to be the employer who told you what to do, but now you find yourself kicking yourself out of the bed in the morning.

In fact, the weakness of financial economy is in the production of subjectivity. The values with which work was once invested – income guarantee, social recognition and mobility, meaning and confidence in future – are no longer there. That is why all the talk about employment, creation of new jobs, welfare state etc. do not open into anything, into anything that would touch us anymore. I mean, in the parliamentary elections in Finland this spring for example, the politicians from the left and the right were competing in promising new jobs even if none seemed to have an idea where the old ones had disappeared. And they were also promising sacrifices and hard times. What is the consequence of the demands of autonomy, initiative, commitment and new social compromise together with the declining wages and income, precarity and unemployment? It is cynicism, opportunism, depression and withdrawal. The promises of wealth for all of us through hard work, credit and finance have proved to be absolutely empty. The promise of emancipation, pleasure, sense of accomplishment, recognition, upward mobility has transformed into imperative to take upon oneself all risks and costs which business nor state won’t pay. The surplus production in financial economy is more and more in these subjective implications to which precarious workers must yield. Economics and subjectivity go today hand in hand. New political economy is subjective economy.

So, the normalization of volunteerism in EXPO is a symptom that stems from this economic and subjective reality: the balance between workers who are unconnected to the resources (materials, companies and capital, which are practically unattainable through work, minus a few miracle outliers that mostly blind us from unbalance of the situation itself) and those that hold these resources has reached a point where a mere abstract promise is enough to push the desperate into service. It is a strange situation. And a very interesting window to the future of work, that is why we are so interested in it. This position where we find ourselves at the labor market resembles torture in some strange way: the necessity to constantly be available and awake, to constantly be waiting to get somewhere, to totally expose oneself and one’s relations, to be ready to do anything, to constantly fear for something to happen. Torture is a very effective tool for making invisible experience, knowledge, traditions, and relations with friends visible and actual. Little torture, and you will sing everything. It is a means of disconnecting what is valuable from your person. This is the future of work.

The technology to automatize and deconstruct work, also cognitive and affective work, is just taking its baby steps – a much more dramatic shift in this balance is ahead, where near half of the current work becomes obsolete. EXPO is sounding the first notes for the future realities of work, the orchestra hasn’t even started. Add to the picture the massification of deficits and student debts, 40% unemployment rates and huge excess of labor everywhere, explosion of sharing resource allocation and shared labor pools, accelerating trends toward consolidation and scale, concentration of wealth and income inequality, and we might see some parts of the future we will face.

This is one of the most important areas of our work. How to produce subjectivity and sensible territories that correspond to our new condition? With actions like Rethink How, Robin Hood points in an intriguing way to the direction of these questions, using EXPO as an example. We need new devices, new strategies, new concrete openings. We need new financial instruments and services which serve our new condition and change the emotional landscape of economy and finance. We need to imagine and open a different economic space. This is what Robin Hood is working with. Rethink How reveals behind it a surprising, creative force, which offers a model that is joyous and you can join if it appeals to you.

To join Robin Hood: http://www.robinhoodcoop.org/members/sign_up

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