The metaverse and the commodity

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Cover image: Ken Currie, The sceptics, oil on panel, 121×128, 1991, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Ghosts and acts of faith are stirring within the system of capitalist globalization, traversed by a wave of magical-archaic survivals, of blind trust in the mechanisms that order the smooth operation of a machine composed of 8 billion individuals increasingly compressed into the space of a common scenario studded with small daily catastrophes, which prelude a final disaster, increasingly predictable and difficult to exorcise, to which it seems many (with the exception of young people, those of Friday for future and Last generation) have resigned themselves.

In the face of all this, it is necessary to go on living, and here to the aid of the individual, bewildered employee of the social contraption, come the inventors of the “virtual” present.

If the future is scary, how can one adequately and happily live in the present?

Recent commercials dwell on the metaverse and augmented (virtual) reality, attempting to show their positive aspects in daily life, emphasizing how they can offer effective opportunities to the management of personal freedom, freeing it from constraints imposed by social and daily life, for example, for the switching on of household appliances, proposing alternatives inherent in the possibilities made available by Artificial Intelligence, which has now become part of the most advanced technology, equipped with functions that could be called teleological. These advertising proposals foreshadow the idea that the real can be tampered with or at least manipulated by a practical autonomous intelligence put at the service of man.

The irruption of metaphysics into the everyday, rather than “metaverse,” one could speak of “detemporalization,” of a “dereal,” of a liberation from everyday urgencies, from minimal responsibilities.

The same phenomenon is happening with bitcoin, with the virtual currency that is supposed to redeem human beings from the bondage of cash or credit cards, from the use of wallets, habitual transactions, and queues at counters to pay the bill. Doesn’t virtual currency herald an alienating, metaphysical reality? It is necessary to listen to the philosopher Zizek in this regard: “And it is only at this level, when money becomes a purely virtual reference, that it finally takes the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe $1,000, and no matter how many material bills of exchange I burn, I continue to owe $1,000, the debt is inscribed somewhere in virtual digital space” (Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, Ponte alle Grazie, 2009, p. 376). Later he admits, “money is precisely an object whose status depends on what we ‘think’ of it: if people no longer treat this piece of metal as money, it is no longer money.” (Ibid., p. 377). 

This, too, is a de-emphasizing, but perhaps, as Zizek warns, dangerous and fideistic. One must gain blind trust in the system, a system that does not liberate, however, but conceals.

Capitalism is based on a materialism (achieving wealth, power, pleasures) that needs a common collective faith, on the basis of which one trusts others as participants at the monetary game table (and the ideology of capitalism evaporates).

United in faith one wins or loses: the important thing is to participate.

Bitcoin would only reinforce faith in something that is not there but that everyone believes in, a specter of an invisible god. Something fideistic also overlaps with the technology of Artificial Intelligence, which involves blind faith in algorithms ordering the operation of machines that can slavishly and continuously imitate human beings. 

Jacopo Ginanneschi, Giants, oil on wood panel, 76×88, 2020

Where does faith in the religion of capitalism, which, for better or for worse, seeks to preserve people’s happiness by removing them from the specter of the future, namely individual and collective death, originate?

The immense power of Capital was born with the establishment of the commodity as the supporting ideology and cornerstone of the market as well as its privileged object, the visible and invisible embodiment of money.

The commodity is the result of the production process, the final object obtained by industrial manipulation that is generated by imitating, parodying and attempting to surpass the generative capacities of Nature.

Unlike the latter, man is able to govern the creative process so well that he obtains a product that is identified with a necessary good or even capable of satisfying his own desires: a dress, a piece of jewelry, a book, which not only fulfill the task of fulfilling a desire, but also take on a second value, of an aesthetic nature, concerning beauty. Some commodities, apt to make man forget that they are mere objects, reveal a magical, religious, sacred aspect, worthy of respect and admiration, of contemplative attention, endowed with an added value that surpasses that of exchange and use, capable of pandering to intimate or ancestral needs of the human being. They fulfill a commercial function, as well as an anthropological and religious need, because of the contribution they make to the spiritual and psychological enrichment of the person concerned, affected, enchanted, and even changed in his or her faith. To industrial production belongs a power of transmission of intimate psychological needs and processes, often unknown to the individual himself or ignored by him, of which production becomes a privileged interpreter, a listening place capable of receiving instances that are (in part) promoted by the advertising industry, faithful handmaiden of this chain of transmission between the people and their ability to create goods for themselves, through labor.

No one would dare to equate this kind of productive labor with a mode proper to capital, that concerning the “exploitation” of workers, because it is an activity directed at satisfying a personal need of entire collectivities, based on uncontrollable psychological paradigms not subject to objective measurement, not reducible to monetary value. The need for those objects becomes a prerogative of masses who demand them for their satisfaction, beyond value, beyond price – unquantifiable price, to put it mildly.

It would be a question of establishing what is the value of the ingenuity lavished in creating the good on the one hand and what is the value of desire on the other, but one is faced with unquantifiable abstractions; Marx called the commodity a “fetish” because of a magical-religious force that comes to it from the attribution of an economic value that erases its nature as an object. However, the preponderance of the phenomenon is attributed to money: “In fetishism it is not the things that speak, but the code that expresses them all because it expresses itself in all of them. As Marx rightly observes, what fascinates in money is not its materiality, nor even the equivalent of a certain labor-power or virtual value that money would have absorbed, but it is the fact that money ensures the circulation of commodities, thus its systematicity, the inherent virtuality of being able to replace all values through their ultimate abstraction. What is employed in money is the abstraction, the total artificiality of the sign, the concluded perfection of a system that is fetishized and not the golden calf or the treasure. Capital therefore is not miserly, but it is fetishistic, its pathology is similar to that of the collector who is not interested in the nature of the things collected, but in the systematic nature of the collective cycle, in which the continuous passage from one term to the next guarantees the constitution of a closed and invulnerable world. It is to this world that capital tends, not to the accumulation of money.” (Umberto Galimberti, Ideas: the catalog is this, Feltrinelli, 1992, p. 48). Marx had understood that in a society it is the functioning that guarantees its graniticity, this mechanism is abstract, it proposes an ideality in which one must believe, have faith; money was the basis of all this, which, however, has been replaced in all respects by the icon of the commodity, which, as Zizek pointed out, satisfies jouissance, enjoyment, the satisfaction of what is man’s strongest drive, desire. The gratifying function contained in the commodity means that it is no longer identified with money; rather, by becoming a priceless object, it is transformed into a gift, precisely because of its quality of satisfying a desire that knows no measure and transcends all value, whether economic or numerical: the commodity, pure abstraction and unique and unambiguous means of desire satisfaction, comes to be identified with pure jouissance, indeed with the preliminary tension that leads to jouissance, the commodity is a petting of jouissance, but also the instrument of jouissance, it is the Sexual Organ of Capital, while advertising is its seductive organ. The success of Amazon parcels is based on this seductive aspect set in the world of childhood, when the child received wrapped gifts from Santa Claus or the Befana. The gift package reduced to its essential state, with a sign – the Amazon brand – that each person can make directly to himself or herself, and perhaps arriving from the sky, by drone, realizing the ultimate concept at the narcissistic level. Then again, jouissance is always personal; what does the desire for the other conceal if not the desire for oneself that one glimpses through an interpersonal medium, in one’s desire directed toward the other?

Sergio Fiorentino,Face, Noto, acrilic and oil on canvas, 150×150, 2020

The exchange process envisioned by Marx, D-M-D or M-D-M, between Money and Commodity, could be translated today as D-M, where the D stands for desire, direct exchange having to do with potlatch. Potlatch involves there being a spontaneous exchange of gifts between two individuals: “potlatch as the pre-economy of economics, its degree zero, that is, exchange as a reciprocal relation between two non-productive expenditures. If the gift belongs to the Master and the exchange to the Servant, the potlatch is the paradoxical exchange between Masters.”(S. Zizek, op. cit,., p. 39). Mutual exchange is destructive of the social bond, “it is the logic of revenge, of an eye for an eye. To cover this aspect of exchange, to make it peaceful and benevolent, one must pretend that each person’s gift is free and autonomous” (ibid.). In the desire that the commodity provides for and contains, in the direct relationship between the desiring individual and the commodity, the mediation of the Master Signifier, the name by which Lacan defines civilization and in particular the set of self-founded rules that make it up, is erased; the individual is ostensibly free to choose, to satisfy his or her desire without mediation; in truth, “the essence of the final decision remains impenetrable to the observer, often even to the one who made the decision.” (S. Zizek, cit., p. 45, the phrase is from J. F. Kennedy). Capitalism succeeds very well in hiding behind the iconization of Commodity, which has replaced and zeroed out that of money, so every apparatus of the system concurs to privilege only the aspect of enjoyment, satisfaction, jouissance that the commodity fulfills (as a function of Capital). It is the triumph of the world of consumerism, of the individual reduced to a consumer, of society presented as Toyland, “where the days are spent frolicking and having fun from morning to night” (Collodi, Pinocchio).   

A society that aims to destroy all forms of thought and knowledge that might undermine its foundations: “There are no schools there: there are no teachers there, there are no books there. in that country you never study” (Ibid.). What country does Lucignolo remind us of, if not modern-day Italy, where the State of Toys allows students to peek at smartphones under the table, instead of attending the professor’s lectures, so much so that the kids know they will be promoted anyway (it’s a school that has become a company of an underpriced labor) and can go on to universities, where, turned all into dummies, they will sprout a nice pair of pointed ears, tail and all. What correctives should be injected into a society that creates accumulations of false desires, false expectations, self-referential narcissists, and ignorant people happy with their lack of identity because they are in need of a substitute, of finding themselves in their childhood, that is, an Amazon package?

What should be taken up from the Marxian discourse concerns the implementation of a utopian democratic society that succeeds in managing the processes of production while avoiding the enrichment of some individuals at the expense of all others. In a just society there should be no “rich people”; exorbitant accumulations of money in the hands of a few should not be allowed. Production should be entrusted to self-management, to cooperatives of entrepreneurs, technicians, and workers, with no inequalities and unjustified wage differences, to be commensurate with the hours of work and the resources each individual actually brings.

To be rejected, the squandering, the accumulation of money that leads to speculation and the phenomenon of usury (proper to banks and stock exchanges).

One attempt might be to nullify the existence of banks in favor of local banks controlled by citizens. In the Constitutions of every state, it should be recognized that monetary sovereignty belongs to the people, an idea taken up by Ezra Pound, then in Italy by university lecturer Giacinto Auriti, finally also advocated by representatives of the League, then the Democratic Party and other parties, but abandoned and even censored because the revolutionary nature of monetary sovereignty would crash the force of accumulation, the true political and ideological nature of Capital, the money-commodity exchange as an ideological (and metaphysical) absolute. Capitalism is an effect of the degenerative process of the production of monetary speculation that has overwhelmed all other processes, encompassing and devouring them, from economic to social, scientific, technological, political and religious. Capitalism is a kind of Golem that in Man’s millennia-long struggle against Nature has proved to be the last and decisive stage in the progress of the species, an instrument of warfare that provides for the exploitation of the resources of subjugated (?) Nature without any control and without limits, the consequences of which are unpredictable.

This contra naturam (thus, degenerative) process appears unstoppable and victorious, having enslaved all activity to the circulation of Money to be transformed into Commodity, Commodity that is, at the same time, Money and Matter, Desire, idea, substance and also soul of all that it is possible to think, act and achieve. It is the ultimate ideology of the species, the one in which prehistory and history are summed up.

The power of capitalism lies entirely in the commodity-money, in the object that establishes and satisfies every desire and deifies jouissance, by virtue of which everyone competes, daily. A power, a doubly illusionistic mode of subjugation, if on the one hand it makes the satisfaction of desire possible and accessible to all, on the other hand it establishes a conflict of “all against all,” within which men are free to slaughter each other for the possession of the means of production in the name of the God to which only a few zealous ministers of worship have access, faithful to the fraud of Capital, which possesses in itself the value of all possible commodities and the Process of the Accumulation of Money, a process that tends toward infinite self-reproduction.

Francesca Strino, Angel “UMABEL” (in numerology he is the keeper of  January 21, day of aryist’s birth), 30×40, oil on canvas, 2020