On Overaccumulation


One thing unites many disparate threads in contemporary culture: the overaccumulation of capital.

I started this post after reading this article at the New York Times on the infiltration of suburban life into New York. The author observes that every year brings more programmed lowbrow leisure activities—such as miniature golf, bowling or batting cages—that were formerly associated to the city. Now, there are a few flaws with this story. For one, the author readily confesses to being a child of the suburbs and suggests that miniature golf and such activities are products of the suburb, recently brought to the city, thus ignoring the history of miniature golf. Not only did I play it at a number of different places as a child in the near North Side in Chicago, as urban a place as you could be, but in the 1920s Drake Delanoy and John Ledbetter built 150 miniature golf courses on rooftops in the city. Anyone familiar with Rem Koolhaas'sDelirious New York will recognize the Downtown Athletic Clubas the site of a course. So, this idea that somehow suburbs have a monopoly on kitsch is, well an idea that only someone who didn't grow up in the city might have. But enough of that, the author's basic point is right: that there are more and more programmed leisure activities in cities and, unlike the activities of old, these are usually rather expensive. In part, these activities are the product of more rich white couples with children staying in cities these days (the number of children under 5 in Manhattan increased by 32% between 2000 and 2010). But as the author suggests, maybe it's not because of the expansion of rich toddlers demanding leisure activities, maybe its "just that constant, and undoubtedly urban, need for something new to do." 

What does all this have to do with overaccumulation? Well, we all know that the modern city produced things while Saskia Sassen taught us that the post-Fordist city produced financial instruments and services, but under network culture, the city becomes a sink for overaccumulated capital. There is little question that there is too much capital out there, a giant pool of money that is constantly seeking investment amidst a long-term decline in the profit rate. There is simply too much out there and, barring more sensible solutions such as wealth redistribution on a vast scale, it must be burned off to keep the economy going.  

An endless source of expensive diversions, the contemporary city plays this role. No longer a site of production, it is a site in which wealth is rapidly squandered, thus in its own way helping to balance out the system. Art, fashion, and architecture all contribute to this. Even finance, by now accustomed to the ups and downs of a stationary state economy has found that it can profit as well from burning up the giant pool of money as from growing it in the first place. What, after all, is the Facebook IPO apart from a spectacular way to destroy billions of dollars spent? But the city as a sink for overaccumulated capital becomes a Situationist Utopia rewritten as farce. The end of all this isn't going to be pretty.