Is It Art? Is It a Hoax? Hedging Precarity and Protecting the Commonfare: An Interview with Akseli Virtanen

by Akseli Virtanen, Taylor C. Nelms, and Bill Maurer February 8, 2016


Akseli Virtanen is one of the founders, as well as current chairman, of the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative, which packages Deleuzo-Marxist critical theory and big data-backed algorithmic trading of financial assets into a member-owned and -run cooperative enterprise. With high finance in one hand and high theory in the other, and guided by an algorithmic system they call (pace Serres) the Parasite,[1] Robin Hood trades on the knowledge of the financial elite and works to redistribute the profits they make—over 100,000 euros and counting—to their members and to wider communities marginalized by the mainstream institutions of financial capitalism and austerity politics.[2]

In September 2014, Virtanen visited the University of California, Irvine to share Robin Hood’s vision of finance, art, and politics. Bill Maurer, Professor of Anthropology and Law and Dean of the UCI School of Social Sciences, and Taylor C. Nelms, then a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and now a Postdoctoral Researcher at UCI, sat down to talk with him.

Taylor: You call the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative a “counter-investment cooperative of the precariat.” What does that mean? What is it that Robin Hood is up to?

Akseli: That’s not a very easy question. We’re just about to start our own transmutation, to take on a new more monstrous form.[3] We’ve been testing ideas. We talk about us not as an investment bank, but a cooperative, a counter-investment cooperative. By this what we’re trying to emphasize is that we’re in the business of investing in the commonwealth, in the production and protection of the common. We also talk about us as a hedge fund, because we are in fact structured just like hedge funds are. We do exactly what they do. But what we hedge is precarity. So we take a position on the financial market to hedge our position in the precarious labor market. It’s pretty smart, I think. We are speculating in common.

T: You also say that you’re in the business of “minor asset management.” That phrasing presents a whole series of possible connotations: It could mean that you’re investing with small amounts of money, or that your goals are somehow modest or humble. That the project is young, possibly still inchoate, still growing, still developing. It could mean that you’re playing minor chords somehow, with finance. And of course there’s the reference to Deleuze and Guattari on “minor literature,” perhaps a way of pointing to the possibility of collective political expression from within a hegemonic order.

A: We were thinking of different names, like “wealth investment bank,” but “asset management” sounded in the end very good. We could not call ourselves a bank, because then we would be immediately under heavy regulations by the Finnish financial regulations agency, and it would kill us immediately. So we had to, like hedge funds do, find a way around.

T: Find a little pocket to exist in.

Bill: Or find a workaround.

A: And by “asset”—in Finnish it works maybe even better—we don’t only mean financial assets. There are also other kinds of assets, knowledge and relationships, possibilities and connections. These are the assets of the precariat that we are in the business of managing. Now, the “minor.” It’s a political concept, an organizational concept from the toolbox of Deleuze and Guattari. They took it from Kafka’s diaries. Kafka is talking about these minor writers, minor writers who operate within the major language, but they work in the tissues, in the edges, with the materiality of the major language. And somehow they make it gasp and stutter. And so it starts to mutate into something of their own, it opens into something else, their own language. So this is what we do. It’s minor. We operate within the major language of finance, with the same technologies. Robin Hood looks like a perfectly normal financial operation. But we turn it around, tinker with it and so it is a bit strange, almost paradoxical – a classic Deleuzian move. In a sense we reengineer finance, cash and risk flows, flows of dependencies and potentialities, we work with its materiality, with the divergent capacities lying latent but definitely built into its matter. And we have the power and imagination to do this. Financial technologies are very moldable, plastic, synthetic—just waiting for an artist’s touch to start producing something else than debt relationships. This is what we call minor asset management.

Deleuze and Guattari have a beautiful series of articulations of what the minor is.[4] This is a way to think about politics in a situation where there is no outside. When there is no way out, we need to start thinking about politics in another way. The minor is something which always puts together personal and political.

T: It’s also always a collective endeavor.

A: Yes, exactly. It’s also always collective. Then it also has the connotation of being underage. Something in the process of becoming, always. In a situation where it looks like nothing new is possible anymore, but we are becoming, that’s where Robin Hood operates, that is our invention.

B: Can you tell us a little bit about the way it works? What are the basics behind the algorithm, and behind the business plan, if you will?

A: Yes, it’s quite simple. Basically we hook into the brains of the financial elite on Wall Street. We appropriate their most important means of production, their knowledge, their relations, their positions, we take them and we make them to work for us. Robin Hood is like a channel to share this means of production with everyone, to play with it, to explore it, and to build on top of it.

I always use an example. You have bought stock in the market, right?

B: I have.

A: So you know how it works. My father used to be in the Finnish paper industry. In Finland, the paper industry, the forest industry, it was a big thing in the last century. I know that he knows the business. And so he told me, I’m going to buy this United Paper Mills stock now.” I knew he had been able to make a lot of money with that stock before, so I decided that I would buy that stock too. And it was a very good move. I asked him, “Hey, Dad, how did you know that it was the right time to buy?” And he said, “I talked to this one guy, and he said that now it was a good move to buy it. And I know that he has been right about this before.” I didn’t talk to that guy, but if I had, I’m pretty sure he would have said something similar. This is how it goes. You buy because you think that others think that it’s a good decision. This is like what we do in Robin Hood. We follow the formation of public opinion, the formation of this common sentiment among the best players in the market. We follow the swarming of these market actors that we know have been consistently able to make money from a certain stock. The statistics are, in fact, very interesting. It’s very interesting to see who these players are, because there’s not much change year to year.

B: Can I stop you there for one second? 

A: Sure.

B: So you basically have a list of investors, funds and individuals. Who is in that group changes very little, so it’s pretty much the same crowd. And then you just track what they do?

A: Yes. In this group there are all the actors in U.S. markets with stakes more than $100M, so fairly serious money, it makes about 12,000 of them. We follow everything that they do, what patterns start to emerge among them, and they have of course no idea of this. We see, for instance, that last year the majority of actors who have been consistently able to make money with Nokia stock, started to purchase Nokia. When we see that a swarm starts to emerge, among the best actors of this stock, like they all start to buy Nokia, we just follow the crowd. We buy too. We let them do all the work and just follow. And last year buying Nokia was a very good move for us. This is, to put it very simply, what we do: We just imitate. It’s a space of pure mimesis.

T: There’s a new model of the financial market that you are playing with. It’s not this referential modality, where knowledge is simply a representation of the world. Instead, that knowledge plays a part in making the world. And that knowledge is always situated—economists would say imperfect or asymmetric. So the model here is that financial markets operate according to the way people come to know one another’s beliefs and behaviors. What matter is not uncovering or defining the truth of value, but paying attention to the movements of the crowd.

A: This is maybe another way to think about it—a technical way, to be honest—but at the moment we are really into thinking about algorithmic production, the aesthetics of algorithmic production: how it relates to subjectivity, how it operates not on the level of individuals, but on an intersubjective or transsubjective level. With the Parasite algorithm, we deconstruct market actors and build a databanks of them. We know a lot about them: their tastes, behavior, relations, preferences, competences, inclinations, what they do. But this information concerns precisely what Deleuze calls “dividuals”—the human subject, on the one hand, as endlessly divisible into different data banks and, on the other, as deconstructed into its component parts and relations which are not unified in an “I”—whose profiles are mere relays of inputs and outputs in our production-consumption machine.[5] “Dividuals” have only a statistical existence controlled by the Parasite whose operations differ from the individualization carried out by what Foucault called “pastoral power,” which is exercised on individuals.[6] I am sure you understand what I mean.

Anyway, our original point of entry was the analysis of the imitative nature of the financial market, especially through the work of Christian Marazzi.[7] There’s also André Orléan in France.[8] We worked with Christian in the early 2000s on how it’s possible that the public opinion, or the consensus opinion, the market sentiment, starts to organize the multitude of transactions in the market. What is this organization? How is it possible? We ended up studying a lot about imitation. That was our conclusion: that the way the market works is defined by the deficit of information. Which means that nobody knows what is going to happen.

If you study finance, this is the only thing they will teach you: Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.

T: Diversify, hedge, reduce your exposure to risk.

A: We could also call it an overload of information, information overflow or semiotic inflation. There’s too much information coming, and you don’t know what is meaningful anymore. This is the classic position from which imitation begins. Signification fails, because no one knows what to expect. You enter into this other area where you start to sense what the others are doing, and you do that too. So we began to understand that this is how the financial markets work, and our own experience confirmed it.

T: It strikes me that in a way, what you’re describing is a kind of anthropology of finance. Of course, the anthropologist would be the one to say that. Perhaps an ethnographic practice, or what George Marcus has called “para-ethnographic.”[9] What I mean is that what you’re doing is tracking or shadowing the beliefs and behaviors of the participants, not in order to produce a representation of those beliefs and behaviors, but to join in with them. George has written about the para-site as a novel ethnographic practice, where those who might have traditionally been the observed meet with those who might have traditionally been the observers, and they think together about a shared object of attention. Not a “parasite,” but a “para-site,” a site of knowledge production parallel to the traditional sites of academic knowledge production.[10]

B: I wonder if there’s a difference here though, in that Robin Hood is more purely mimetic. So an anthropologist of finance would want to learn the tools and practices of the financiers, or the knowledge forms of, let’s say, the hedge fund manager. To sit down next to him or her, ask, “Show me how you do it,” and then try to do it him- or herself. Whereas in Robin Hood, you’re not getting into the black boxes. You’re only looking at the effects, and then just miming the effects.

T: You’re not interested in process, just the outcome.

A: Yes, it’s so irrelevant.

T: Could you say a bit more about that choice?

A: We are working with perceiving the continuously changing rules and regularities of the coming-together of innumerable singular events, or call them market transactions. The Parasite is in essence directly expressing mood, desire, and social relationships (buying, selling) that are conscious and unconscious, bare flows and relations in constant motion, needing no mechanism of mediation to separate productive from non-productive. They are beyond all individual/collective distinctions and cannot be disciplined or controlled in space, taking into account their nature and number. They can only be expressed as tendencies and intensities, as variations and deviations and their regularities. The only decisive thing is in fact their changing regularity, the emergence of a regularity, which is like a moving diagonal or rule of change or variation. It is like the curve that connects the separate constantly moving points, the rule of their connection, the regularity of the connection of their movement. 

I am here trying to find a way to speak on behalf of a thing that can say and understand what we cannot. But this is also what I mean more generally by the machinic nature of production. It is operating on the level of component parts of subjectivity, sensations, cognition, memory, physical ability, intelligence, affects, tendencies, inclinations, not-yet-individuated potentialities. What the person “wants” or “wills” or “knows” is here absolutely irrelevant. I said this in another interview with Pekka Piironen: 

And we see this so clearly: no matter what we say, vote, demonstrate, argue, occupy, strike … nothing changes. The new mechanisms of [financialized] value production do not work only with individual subjects, but more with their deterritorialization into dividuals. And 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, from the outside.[11]

It takes us whether we want it or not. This is also a much more effective way of organizing, because it does not take place on the level of our actual actions, thoughts, or relationships, but on the level of their conditions, on the level of their becoming. It is a way of organizing potentiality. 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 subjectivation. We have elsewhere talked about the emergence and mechanisms of such arbitrary power, so I won’t go into this here.[12]

The politics of Robin Hood is not about rational communication or building community. Rather

[w]e need to take advantage of the ongoing deterritorialization and move towards a 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. It means engaging financial capital where it draws its power: in its paradoxes, in its arbitrariness.[13]

I think simply that without devices that can operate on this level we are today without politics, incapable of speaking, of grasping, and of intervening in processes and future of our life.

This is the conclusion of a series of new books by n-1 Publications. This is the core point in Maurizio [Lazzarato]’s book, Brian Massumi’s new book, and my book as well.[14] At Robin Hood, we think this is where we need to make our moves.

B: Intervening on a semiotic level of value production.

A: Exactly. On a-signifying semiotic level, as Guattari would say. A machinic level.

B: Can I ask a silly question? It’s maybe a little bit biographical, but why would you decide to intervene the way you did? There are lots of ways you might have inserted yourselves. You could write a book! (You did write a book!) But instead, or in addition to that, you were like, “Let’s start an asset-management company.” What was that moment?

A: That is exactly how it went! I guess, some people would rather just write the book. Or build the collective, go on strike, occupy the plaza. This is important. There’s a lot to be learned from this radical political activism, but at the same time, there are new things happening, especially with financial technologies, which are so much more effective organizational devices than books, because they don’t care about the level of meaning at all. We have to take that seriously. I don’t know; it’s a good question. But it was a pretty logical step from our theoretical work too, when I think about it now. Perhaps it was also the influence of Félix Guattari, the influence of his thought and practice.

T: Another way of asking the question might be to say that there are many other projects that parallel yours. They are not exactly the same, but they are attempting to make parallel interventions, whether it’s the Alternative Finance Working Group or the Strike Debt initiative. Projects that are interested in getting inside the operations of high finance and the machinery of credit and debt in order, perhaps, to appropriate those means and turn them to different ends.[15] Why these kinds of interventions, rather than the classic 20th-century liberal politics of revolution and resistance?

B: And book-writing. Revolution, resistance, and writing.

T: Which all three go hand-in-hand. So what is it about this particular conjuncture that calls out for a different mode of political engagement? Why now?

A: I think it has to do with our subjectivity. We need to find political means or forms that correspond to our subjectivity. The background to all this is, of course, that many autonomous political projects, projects that are trying to self-organize to build different values, or call for cooperation, have turned into dead ends. It’s the financiers and politicians who are now telling us, “Hey be independent! Take care of yourself!” One example: The Greek crisis was going on in the middle of the Finnish presidential elections, and the new Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said that—he’s talking to the Greeks—he said that solidarity means that you take care of your own things and don’t come to ask for money from us. That’s solidarity.

In a way, Robin Hood is also a figure of this new kind of solidarity, this bankruptcy of being able to do things together. We take this very seriously. We’ve been banging our heads trying to make different cooperatives work, and every time it seems to fail. We started to talk about the impossible community of precarious workers. It seems as precarious, affective and cognitive workers, we are unable to build any kind of conscious collective subjectivity or solidarity. A revolution? With this bunch. C’mon. We learned this with the help of Guattari. What are our states of mind? We are such opportunists. Ready to submit to anything, to take advantage of any situation. We are so bored and depressed. We are interested in everything, but we don’t really care about anything.

T: You’re not the vanguard.

A: Right. Others can lead the revolution. Sometimes we have difficulty just getting out of bed. We aren’t revolutionaries. We have described ourselves as a group of losers, we are not macho, and we are just trying to find support from other depressed princesses and cynical opportunists. We are soft, feeble, impotent. And we are the future of cooperation.

Seriously! What does cooperation among the depressed look like? What’s a community of opportunists? How does that function? This is the key organizational question of Robin Hood.

At one point I said that we are a love bank. That was the idea at the Kassel documenta, the important contemporary art exhibition in Germany. It’s only held once every five years. And we were there [in 2012]. It was a big event, and the curator of the exhibition, she started to get a little bit angry with us. “Why are you talking about money all the time? Money is not the solution here”, she said, “the documenta, for instance, was built only with love”. She meant that the cooperation between the artists, who put their hearts and souls into their work and into the community, this is the essence of art, and of the whole documenta, not the money. Money is irrelevant. And we answered, “Yes, we know, because we also continuously do everything with love, too. We put our soul and love into every short-term project, all our networks, all our relations. We put them in there. And this is exactly what exhausts us. But Robin Hood, we offer affective rest. Just give us your money, we’ll give you back more, and you can do whatever you want. We don’t want your community-building love. You can save your love. We are a love bank.

T: So in fact, in addition to appropriating the tools and means of finance, the forms of financial capital, you’ve also appropriated the forms of cooperativism and put those forms to use doing something other than what they were designed for. Rather than building community, what you’ve done is put the form of the cooperative to use to create this moment of pause or rest in a world of exhaustion.

A: I think we have to take this subjectivity of exhaustion seriously. This is the main reason why the old political means don’t work. We have to understand the relationship between the exhaustion of the possible at our disposal and how the production of value functions today.

T: I want to talk about the sort of Robin Hood’s place in this hegemonic political and financial order and about the form or the figure of the parasite. Specifically, I want to think about this relationship with regards to another way of imagining alternatives or otherness within dominant orders. J.K. Gibson-Graham, a pair of feminist economic geographers, have written about the unevenness of the ostensibly capitalist landscape, how only in our critical and celebratory representations of capital do we see a smooth, coherent, homogenous system.[16] In fact, there are all of these pockets; it’s very uneven, that landscape, and people are not simply doing the typical things we expect capitalist subjects to do. They’re doing the economy in a whole bunch of different other ways. They’re doing it cooperatively, they’re doing it autonomously. They’re doing it ethically, they’re doing it illegally. Gibson-Graham are committed to documenting all of those different practices and projects as a way to enlarge the field of the possible, to re-imagine the diversity of economies that might exist. The classic way Gibson-Graham imagine this diversity is with an image of an iceberg. At the top, all you can see are orthodox representations: wage labor, market exchange, etc. But hidden underneath the water line are all of these other, really heterogeneous ways of doing economy.[17] Do you see Robin Hood as similarly performing economic difference or diversity and, in that way, similarly opening up a kind of horizon of imaginations?

B:  Gibson-Graham are invested in talking about the plurality of the existing economy. Their critical concern is to resist what they call “capital logocentrism.” Whenever we even open our mouths to talk economy, we’re already assuming Capitalism, capital C, which relegates everything under the waterline to invisibility, and denies the actually existing experiments and alternatives that are taking place right now. But it’s not like these alternatives are in their own little separate bubble. It’s all together with Capitalism.

A: Maurizio [Lazzarato] has a very good formulation in his book, where he shows that we have moved from logocentric to machinic or machine-centric production. There the place and role of language and communication becomes much less central, just one piece in the complex of assemblages of individuals, bodies, material and social machines, semiotic, mathematical, and affective machines which bypass language and signification. So what we need to add to this image [of the iceberg] is the modulation of currents under the water. This is where algorithmic production already works.

T: It’s not just the tip of the iceberg. It’s already working underneath.

A: The machinic, the way it organizes relations of production, is strong precisely because it just operates, it just functions, without caring at all what somebody has to “say.” We have to understand the machinic nature of finance.

T: So the importance of understanding this machinic nature is in order to intervene in it, participate in it, hollow it out from the inside. That seems to suggest that there is at least a preliminary place for the word. Or for the book. What is the role of critical theory—or of concept work, or of the theoretical—in developing modes of acting and intervening in this space?

A: I think we are very pragmatic. Our approach is one of existential pragmatics. Is it theory? Is it business? Is it art? We don’t really care. We are only interested in what we can do with it. How can we make our existential territory more habitable with this?

B: And this also plays into this understanding of a new socioeconomics of technique or technicality. A kind of omnivorism, pulling from a range of domains without worrying about sources or origins.

A: Yes. The paradoxes of biopolitical economy cause problems with such distinctions, like between theory and practice. We need new concepts. We can think of Robin Hood as a new concept, not in the sense of conceptual art, but as a concept in the way Deleuze talks about the creation of concepts, the most important task of philosophy.

But how do we know that it is a new concept? Deleuze says that you recognize one when it is a little odd and when it is necessary. And it is only so when it corresponds to a real problem. There is an important distinction between real problems and false problems for him. The Bergson book is all about this, for instance.[18] Let’s just say that the semi-divine power in the freedom of creating your own problems also makes the false pre-given problems disappear. He also calls concepts paradoxes. Paradoxes are like rebel elements of language, which cause problems to old meanings and distinctions as if they did not fit within the boundaries of normal life. They reveal the inability of used language and words to express what they point at, revealing the limits of our current understanding. He uses different words and ways to think about this, because machinic power already works in this context. It builds environments or ecologies in which you think you are independent, you think you’re making your own moves, but you’re wandering in this environment or ecology where the problems are already formulated for you, like in a quiz show. You feel so great when you get the answer. But that’s not the point. We have to be able to formulate our own problems, real problems, and create the concepts that correspond to those problems. That’s the way we’ve been thinking about Robin Hood, as a Deleuzian concept.

T: A position that, as you’ve put it before, does not appear to offer the possibility of escape.

A: The position calls for a new ethics. It does not play with the old version of morality, which promises escape. It’s a different post-ethical ethics or a poetic ethics.

B: I like the idea of the poetic ethical, because what it seems to do is foreground the form of the ethical, rather than its content—that is, on the channel through which the ethical moves or flows.[19]

T: One implication of that focus on form, maybe, is the importance of play—or the joke. Jokes are often inversions or twists on common or recognizable forms.

B: Another term I wanted to reflect on is satire.

T: Elsewhere you and other Robin Hood organizers have asked, perhaps rhetorically, “Is this art?” I want to ask, “Is it a joke?” I mean that seriously. Or is it satire? A parody?

A: Maybe it is. It is not irony, however, that’s for sure. This is a discussion we have often had with Franco [Berardi, who is an advisor to the Cooperative], because he thinks that irony is critical, that there’s a critical force in irony. But irony only works when there’s something very clear to confront: the king or the dictator. But in this depressed situation it’s not irony which works for us. Satire, a joke, play—yes, I think definitely. This is how we’ve been thinking, because art and play are very closely connected, of course. When there’s something sacred—sacred like the financial market—you can’t touch it. For example, there have been newspaper articles written about us. The economic experts, they say that it will not work, that it has already been tried. “These amateurs and artists, what can they do?” So it becomes important to ask: When there’s something sacred, what are the means to profane it? To bring it back to common use and play. When there’s something sacred, you go and you grab it. You touch it, and it loses its sacredness. Play is one of the key strategies to do that. That’s how we’ve been thinking about the financial market. Maybe we should just start to play with it.

B: I like the idea of the touch, like smearing or smudging the sacred away.

T: One of the things we might think about is the trope of dirty money. 

A: And satire is— 

B: —the opposite of laundering money. Sullying money rather than purifying it.

Satire is another one of these comic modes for responding to or dealing with power. Even before the financial crisis, satire has been deployed very effectively in the U.S. Since the second Iraq war, for example, satire has been one of the most effective modes of creating alternative narratives. In the U.S., think about comedians like Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. Or like the activists who dress up like billionaires to protest inequality and money in politics.[20] What Stephen Colbert did was create a news show, just like any news show, and he’s the anchor. He reports the news, completely deadpan, often saying exactly the same things that are said on other news shows, but with a raised eyebrow or doing it just a little bit over-the-top. So on his show, Colbert—he’s going on to do something else now—but he lived inside this persona of a right-wing media commentator, and he never breaks. This kind of satirical engagement is another mode of play, another mode of jesterhood, that’s not ironic. It’s not cynical detachment.

A: At one point we were thinking that maybe we need a different name. Maybe something with more street credibility, more aggressive, like the “Parasite Fund” or something. But then we thought, no. Robin Hood is funny. There’s a bit of humor in there. Sometimes political activists are so serious. And in the start-up scene, I don’t know, people seem more joyous, more innovative, more playful. So we wanted to—

T: Appropriate some of their playfulness.

A: Exactly. Early on, for instance, we made of video of all of us wearing green stockings running through the forest. It was so terrible we never published it.

B: This was one of my questions, in fact: about Robin Hood and the literary reference that’s in there. Was there any more thought to the choice, or was it just as you said, that you were fishing around for a name and this one seemed a bit funny?

A: I don’t remember exactly why we chose Robin Hood in the end. But there are two reasons it works. The first is that in this moment of semiotic inflation, there’s too much information, too many meanings. You need a name that works in a different, immediate way. Like Robin Hood—everyone knows what Robin Hood does, no explanations needed. A child in India knows. You don’t need to explain, read, to use the old verbal linear logic, to recognize what we do. We do what Robin Hood does. The story of Robin Hood goes back about 600 years, and it has to do with the Forest Law, which allowed the Norman kings to appropriate the common forests, common lands. This is the origin of the Robin Hood, and the second reason the name works. When the lords appropriated the common lands and criminalized certain normal, everyday activities, the people became opportunists, and some, like Robin Hood, invented new economic and social forms. Robin Hood got his death penalty for poaching the king’s deer in the forest that used to be common. Today, new Forest Laws are being established everywhere to privatize the common. Just look at the Greek situation for example. So we need again the services of Robin Hood. Our strategy is the same as it was 600 years ago in Sherwood, but our methods are different: now we do 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. The consequences are the same, the Sheriffs of Nottingham are again perplexed, because they can’t protect the routes of the wealth expropriated from the people anymore.

B:  This leads into the other thing I wanted to remember to ask, which is about the notion of the commons. The commons that you’re invoking here is not the romantic commons, the commons of communalism and communitarianism, the implication that all of us will now live in a cooperative society in which we own everything together.

A: You are right. For example we talk about distributed capital, capital as common, making capital common—this is what we are working with. What does it mean? Not that everything is owned together or that there is some kind of happy community around shared values. Nor does it mean distribution of something pre-produced. Rather, distributed capital means that everyone is able to enter it from their own angle. It is a concept of difference and heterogeneity, even dissensus—many different entities together without a need to become like the other or even to know the other, creating value simply by acting together without maybe knowing where the others are moving. When capital gets distributed it becomes nomadic and starts to make possible all kinds of new things. That is the kind of concept of the common we are developing.

We do also think that the common basis of value production is being privatized, that this forms the bases of financial asset accumulation, in a way that can surpass the sphere of work and commodities, for instance. Here’s what I said to Pekka before: 

At the moment, our collective capacity to assume debt and pay taxes and be the direct bearer of austerity measures—for governments to downsize and spend less for one simple reason, to be able to borrow more—creates direct vehicles for financial asset accumulation (which is not investment in expanding production). The increasing supply of government bonds (safe means for capital preservation) is possible only through deficit cuts and excluding all inflationary spending. This is like the financial equivalent of raw material for industrial production, like Robert Meister has said so well.[21] 

I think that Bob is absolutely right to say that in the financial economy, surplus is extracted directly from our collective capacity to indebt ourselves and pay taxes, rather than from the production of goods and services. Or to put it shortly: growth in forms of indebtedness is the condition for financial capital accumulation, just like expansion of labor force participation was the condition 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 choke points for capital accumulation.

Could the common, instead of the private or the public, become the basis of production in a way that did not lead dynamically and systematically towards inequality and concentration of wealth? I think so. That is why we have also been talking about commonfare, welfare of the common, and that Robin Hood invests in its production. This is what we are trying to do.

B: So part of the profits from Robin Hood are supposed to be invested in this commonfare.[22]

A: Yes, this was our first step, the members decide which part of their profits they want to invest in the common pool from where we invest together. In fact, at this moment, we are trying to work out the procedure through which we will manage this investment in the production of the commonfare.

But this is also part of the problem at the moment, the organization of the operation. Basically we are now organized like poor people have always done it: in the nice way, obeying all the laws, paying the taxes, doing everything by the book, establishing a cooperative structure. The rich would never have done it like this. You know that the 1% has at least $32 trillion hiding in tax heavens—which is over half of the world’s total public debt—that Apple holds more than $81 billion in offshore accounts, Microsoft $54 billion, Google $43 billion, Cisco $42 billion …?

The problem is that there are two sorts of money. There’s money as a means of exchange, money as a general equivalent, money that you get from doing your work. This is bad money, money without any power. And then there’s money as capital, money that has the power to organize and command the future. We have been able to create access to money as capital, but within our organizational structure at the moment, when the money reaches our members it has already transformed into bad money. This is not what we want. That’s why we are at the moment initiating our transmutation, into a new more monstrous form.

T: I wonder if the IMTFI [Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion] model would be useful. IMTFI invests not directly in community building. Instead, we hold a competition. We invite submissions and give grants for individual research projects. One could imagine that those grants could be given for all sorts of things.

B: And in the middle of their research projects, before they finish, the grantees come here to UC Irvine. They’re not reporting on a project that they’ve done, proving that it’s been done well. They come together in the middle of their project. They get to know one another, and there’s always this cross-contamination. People chat and try to figure each other out. People form relationships. They exchange ideas. And then they go back to finish their projects.

A: I understand. That’s a good idea. We’ve thought about doing something similar, appropriating again some of the models of private investment. But we don’t want our investments in the commonfare to become again the property of an individual or a community. That transformation cannot happen. So the Robin Hood projects must always be more than for themselves, they should be generative and expansive. They should generate growth in subjectivities, in possibilities, in organization, in sharing, in scale, in mobility, in access, in independence, in desire. But what are the ways to ensure that it’s about the production of the common? Maybe it’s something like a library—

B: Something that builds a common infrastructure.

A: Exactly.

B: There is a group of scholars at the University of Manchester and the Manchester Business School and elsewhere in the U.K. who argue that certain truly essential, but still mundane sectors of the economy have been neglected or mismanaged and need to be protected. They call it the foundational economy, and they’ve broken it out into a number of key sectors: education, health, food, and I think they actually throw in telecommunications. So they’re articulating a political platform based on these sectors that are foundational to human life and flourishing.[23] This is another way to imagine investment in these common resources. In this case, it’s linked to left politics in a more conventional—but not entirely conventional—way.

It also seems to me, however—just to go back to the forest—that the common of the forest is a different common from the common of a public library. A public library is public infrastructure almost in the sense of the state’s old role in curating, preserving, teaching, and so on, whereas the forest is itself a kind of subject of production. There’s an old anthropological discussion about land as an object of production versus land as a subject of production. This is old-fashioned anthropology, but there were arguments that in some small-scale social groups, land was an object of labor and production; land was treated as another kind of tool. And it became subject to ownership, usually by kinship lineages. You end up with hoes, cows, land—and it’s all owned. But there are also social groups that treated land as a subject of production, rather than an instrument. The land itself was a living, producing force, and people were, in effect, gleaning off of that land. Perhaps this is close to what you mean by distributed capital. The forest was giving to people. For example, the Mbuti people in central Congo, who developed elaborate mythologies around the forest. Because it wasn’t something that could be owned; the whole notion of that kind of ownership was not relevant. This is from Meillassoux and Godelier, who are drawing on Marx, and it seems to me that the commonfare they are talking about is really the forest of Robin Hood, where the land is a subject, the land provides.[24] Perhaps what you have with Robin Hood is a struggle between land-as-subject and land-as-object. Perhaps making the commonfare would be more like that forest than it would be like a library, or a library in forest mode rather than a library in public-library mode. Perhaps the commonfare that you try to create is more like the Mbuti forest than a public library.

T: We’ve talked about how Robin Hood is this playful, even irreverent experiment—how it might even be seen as kind of monstrous. Somehow dangerous or reprehensible, ethically and politically, and not just to the priests of high finance, but to traditional left-critical voices, too, who might also be allies. How do you respond to people who might say, “Aren’t you just subsuming yourself to the systemic logic of financial capital?” And how do you respond to people who might say, “This can’t possibly be real. This is a Ponzi scheme.”

A: There are three or four basic responses people seem to have to Robin Hood. The first, most immediate response is this: “It’s a hoax, it’s a Ponzi scheme, it’s a scam.” Then there is the cynical response: “It won’t work, it’s already been tried. The big banks, they are doing it already.” Then there is this response you mentioned: “But you are doing exactly the same thing that the bad guys.” And then maybe the fourth is this: “Yes, let’s do something good together.”

We take these responses very seriously, because they demonstrate the subjectivity I talked about earlier. We take this subjectivity very seriously. That is why our starting point from the beginning has been that there is no outside to financialization, you know, there are no financial virgins. We are all already part of the financial asset accumulation, no matter who we are or how much or how little money we have. We are all already in it. You think that you have money in the bank, in your account, but de facto you don’t. You have loaned your money to the bank, which works it in the money markets, uses it to create new credit, bundles it together with different things in all kinds of securitizations. In the end, there are no banks, just other people’s hedge funds. If you loan your money to the banks it is like voting for the system to stay as it is. If you understand this, then you also realize that money is not something bad; on the contrary, it’s good to have access to it and be able to manage its flows. This is what we are doing. 

I would ask anybody concerned to take closer look at what we have done: we create in our portfolio a synthetic replica of the emerging conventions of the financial elite at the market. It is a simulacrum, a monstrous false power, whose repetition yields a difference in kind. A bad copy of the financial asset accumulation model opens suddenly into something else and overturns the grounds on which any distinction between copy and original could stand. We copy the means of production—their knowledge, relations, positions—and use them in a way that does not belong to the orthodox economic space but starts to create other kinds of economic relations. This is what we called minor asset management.

To this reaction that it must be a hoax, at first we tried to argue: “Hey, no, listen. It’s not. These are the differences between pyramid schemes and us. We are a normal company. Our books are public. We are audited by Ernst & Young. You see?” But we soon noticed that it didn’t matter. It’s not a matter of rational argumentation at all. That reaction operates on another level. So then we started to say, “Yes, maybe it is” And it started to work much better! People started to get interested. “But maybe it is.” The point was that, when people are confronted with a paradox or a monster, they’d rather use the categories they have, the categories they are familiar with. “It must be a hoax.” Now it’s dealt with and I can go home and sleep at night.

T: I won’t be haunted.

A: Right. You just put it to one side and forget about it. I think perhaps one of the best ways to recognize new, effective political forms is that you don’t like them. They are paradoxical. They are disgusting. It doesn’t belong to the dark side, but it points to something that is already there, but you can’t find the words to describe it yet, maybe only the demonstrative gesture “there.” It is beyond what exists at this moment. It’s a monster. We have to hold on to that.


Image by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.


[1] Serres, Michel 2007[1980]. The Parasite. Lawrence R. Schehr, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] See the Robin Hood website: See also Piironen, Pekka, and Akseli Virtanen 2015. Democratizing the Power of Finance: A Discussion about Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative with Founder Akseli Virtanen. In MoneyLab Reader: An Intervention in Digital Economy. Geert Lovink, Nathaniel Tkacz, and Patricia de Vries. Pp. 92-103. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures. Available online:

[3] See “Equity, Option, Assemblage—Robin Hood 2.0,” available online:

[4] E.g., Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari 1983[1975]. What Is a Minor Literature? Robert Brinkley, trans. Mississippi Review 11(3): 13-33. See also Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari 1987[1980]. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenai, volume 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 104-107.

[5] Deleuze, Gilles 1992. Postscript on Societies of Control. October 59: 3-7. Not to be confused with Marilyn Strathern’s notion of the Melanesian “dividual” (see Strathern, Marilyn 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press).

[6] Foucault, Michel 1982. The Subject and Power. Critical Inquiry 8(4): 777-795.

[7] Marazzi, Christian 2011. The Violence of Financial Capitalism. New ed. Kristina Lebedeva and Jason Francis McGimsey, trans. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

[8] Orléan, André 2014[2011]. The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics. M.B. DeBevoise, trans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[9] E.g., Holmes, Douglas R., and George E. Marcus 2008. Para-Ethnography. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Los Angeles: Sage, pp. 596-598.

[10] Deeb, Hadi Nicholas, and George E. Marcus 2011. In the Green Room: An Experiment in Ethnographic Method at the WTO. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 51-76.

[11] Piironen and Virtanen 2015: 99.

[12] Lazzarato, Maurizio, Brian Massumi, Peter Pal Pelbart, and Akseli Virtanen 2014. Power at the End of the Economy. Available online:

[13] Piironen and Virtanen 2015: 99.

[14] Lazzarato, Maurizio 2014. Signs, Machines, Subjectivities. Joshua David Jordan, trans. São Paulo and Helsinki: n-1. Massumi, Brian 2015. The Power at the End of Economy. Durham: Duke University Press/São Paulo and Helsinki: n-1. Virtanen, Akseli 2015 (forthcoming). Arbitrary Power. A Contribution Towards a Critique of Biopolitical Economy. Janna Jalkanen Greenhill, trans. São Paulo: n-1.

[15] See, e.g., Appel, Hannah 2014. Occupy Wall Street and the Economic Imagination. Cultural Anthropology 29(4): 602-625.

[16] E.g., Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2005. Surplus Possibilities: Postdevelopment and Community Economics. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 26(1): 4-26; 2008. Diverse Economies: Performative Practices for “Other Worlds.” Progress in Human Geography 32(5): 613-632.

[17] For Gibson-Graham’s iceberg, diagram, see, e.g., Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006[1996]. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, p. 70.

[18] Deleuze, Gilles 1988[1966]. Bergsonism. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, trans. Brooklyn: Zone Books. See also Deleuze, Gilles, and Féliz Guattari 1994[1991]. What Is Philosophy? Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, trans. New York: Columbia University Press.

[19] Larkin, Brian 2013. The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.

[20] See Haugerud, Angelique 2013. No Billionaire Left Behind: Satirical Activism in America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[21] Piironen and Virtanen 2015: 96.

[22] At the time of the publication of this article, Robin Hood had invested in three projects, chosen out of an original 49 that were proposed: Casa Nuvem, an autonomous space for experimental productions in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Radio Schizoanalytique in Thessaloniki Greece, which is designed to break the control that a global mining company and its proponents have on the local and regional media; and a Commons Transition initiative by Catalan Integral Cooperative and P2P Foundation to develop strategies for a self-managed, distributed society based on P2P principles and environmental and social realities.

[23] See, e.g., Bowman, Andrew, Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal, John Law, Adam Leaver, Michael Moran, and Karel Williams, eds. 2014. The End of the Experiment? From Competition to the Foundational Economy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[24] Godelier, Maurice 1977. Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Meillassoux, Claude 1973. On the Mode of Production of the Hunting Band. In French Perspectives in African Studies. Pierre Alexandre, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 187-203.