When the discussion of “fake news” and “alternative facts” was at its height a few months ago I found it interesting but largely assumed it was mostly a function of a political “will to confuse”. Clearly there are benefits in manipulating the political discourse and undermining any truth claims for those wish to convince the public they are the best choice. But when reading an article from a few years ago on the theory of digital capitalism I realised that this is perhaps more fundamental to contemporary political economy than I previously thought (and particularly that which is embodied by Donald Trump).
In his article “Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism” Michael Betancourt proposed that one of the fundamental aspects of digital capitalism is that it is also “agnotologic capitalism”. By which he means it is “a capitalism systemically based on the production and maintenance of ignorance”. This ignorance is necessary for digital capitalism because the move away from its previous dependency on physical labour and physical commodities to immaterial labour and semiotic production.
The huge value of housing markets (which are the linchpin of contemporary economies) and what we now realise was their inherent instability (as seen in the 2007/8 financial crisis) were both built on “financialization”. That is, the production of a “housing bubble” through the creation of assets in the form of “derivatives”. The value generated by these was not derived from labour but from the semiotic process:
new values were primarily created by packaging/semiotic manipulation securities generated from mortgages […] The physical commodities (houses) significant to the extent that they could provide debts (mortgages) into securities […] The semiotic manipulation and resale in derivative market.
In order for the system to work it was necessary for almost everyone to be ignorant of how it functioned and the fact that financial assets were not “high-quality” as the banks claimed they were. Rather, they were built on a fundamentally unsound basis, as in many cases the owners of the original asset (the mortgage) were unable to make repayments. As Betancourt states:
The creation of systemic unknowns where any potential “fact” is always already counted by an alternative or apparently equal weight value vendor’s engagement with the conditions of reality […] contentious and a source of confusion, reflected by the inability of participants in bubbles to be aware of imminent collapse after it has happened”.
If capitalism is now largely “semiocapitalism” with value derived from meaning and symbols then obfuscation is a powerful tool in generating value. The majority of Donald Trump’s business was in property, the sector of the economy most closely associated with the production of fictitious “bubbles” and confusing and complex debt based financial systems.