By Jonathan Roffe
Financial markets play a huge role in society, but theoretical reflections on what constitutes these markets are scarce. Drawing on sources in philosophy, finance, the history of modern mathematics, sociology and anthropology, Abstract Market Theory elaborates a new philosophy of the market in order to redress this gap between reality and theory.
About Jonathan Roffe
Jon Roffe is a Vice-Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Roffe has edited a number of volumes on recent and contemporary French philosophy, and he is the author of Badiou's Deleuze, The Works of Gilles Deleuze (forthcoming), Gilles Deleuze's 'Empiricism and Subjectivity' (forthcoming), and co-author of Lacan Deleuze Badiou.
Marc Lenglet on Journal of Cultural Economy wrote:
"What is 'price,' and what is the role of price in market-oriented society? More importantly, what is the relation between price and value? [...] Jonathan Roffe sets out to evaluate markets as generators of values. He pursues both the ontological problem -- just what is 'a' or 'the' market? -- and the ethical problem -- how are we to think of the values generated by prices, or do prices really say anything about values at all? It appears that Roffe is very well read on the background and nature of prices and value. The discussion of the relation of price and value, and the problems of using the first as a stand-in for the second, are quite useful. [...] Roffe's analysis rests on a plainly false basic premise. "Definition 1" asserts that "The orthodox conception of the market is organized around the probabilistic modeling of the market." But this confuses the workings of the market as an objective process playing out empirically, in the world, with the abstract models that human modelers, in this case economists, use to understand and predict the market. [...] Roffe's critique of models, then, simply restates the nearly hundred year old (and widely recognized) critique made by Knight (1921). In this, Roffe is correct, but unoriginal. His critique of markets confuses the thing with the model of the thing, and so does not even address the problem of markets in any important or useful way."
"Jon Roffe’s book appears as a hapax: It is one very unique attempt at providing a philosophical answer to the formidable question, ‘What is (the) market?’ An exigent read, Abstract Market Theory requires letting aside a good number of perspectives and ideas on markets which have been developed in the social sciences – even the most critical accounts that emerged these past 20 years. Cruising far away from discourses rooting in the ‘ontological turn’, the book offers a series of conceptual distinctions and proposals that, taken together, build a robust philosophical theory of the market – this object of concern that is often referred to, but rarely addressed as such. Let it be clear from the beginning that this book is, in spirit, Deleuzian. [...] Scholars working in the social sciences should read this book seriously; that is, they should be willing to let aside the theories they are used to discussing and keep an open mind towards this Deleuzian vocabulary – at least for a moment. [...] by developing a philosophical argument shedding light on how temporality plays a pivotal role in the articulation of market and society, Roffe discusses an element that is often let down or poorly addressed by social scientists. His book might also act as an eye-opener for those attempting to analyse financial markets from a Polanyian perspective, as it clearly puts into perspective the disruptive nature of the relationship between market and society, together with the socially destructive effects of the idea that the market can achieve some type of self-regulation."
Table of Contents + First Alinea of Chapters
Amidst the curdling mass of our contemporary doubts, one thing at least is certain: the market exists. And yet, despite this — despite the market’s ubiquity and its unpredictability, its role in the making of billionaires and the destitution of nations — there is an almost total absence of philosophical reflection on its nature.
The Being of the Market
To begin with the obvious: there are many markets, and many kinds of markets. It would be easy to insist as a result that the use of the indefinite article in ‘ the market’ is nothing more than a matter of convenience, and that any attempt to elaborate a theory of the market in the singular is bound to fall into either triviality, overgeneralization, or both. Perhaps.
The distinction between price and value is fundamental to economics, to the financial study of markets, and to political economy; at the same time, the grounds of the distinction itself, and the differentiating characteristics of the two terms, often remains obscure. It would not be too much to say that this obscurity has coloured the entire history of economics through all of its convulsions, and gives a particular complexion to analyses across its spectrum, from politics to mathematized finance. However, we should not be too quick to maintain that a simple misunderstanding is in force in all of these situations; the difficulty perhaps lies in the very nature of the role of price in the modulation of value in social life.
We have arrived at an elementary definition of the market as the exclusive and univocal medium of price, and a schematic concept of price as integrally quantitative and essentially contingent. It remains to determine the precise nature of the relationship between price and the market, on the one hand, and the relationship between the market and the social on the other. The latter problematic will be treated in the second half of the book, but the first will receive, in this chapter and the next, two complementary answers: that price is inscribed, and that price is intensive. These features are doubled by determinations proper to the market conceived as a medium: the market will be defined as an inscriptive and intensive surface.
If price is written, and if this writing concerns not the communication of meaning but the transmission of intensity, a very particular registry or surface is required as the locus of its recording. There is no doubt that, without such a concept it is impossible to formulate an adequate theory of the market. In its absence we are left with the Scylla of an anthropomorphized specular market-subject (‘what the market wants’) and the Charybdis of a deflationary sociology.
Realization of the Market
Let’s observe that the status of two categories advanced in the previous chapters remains unresolved. On the one hand, the tripartite distinction between inscription, registration and interpretation (or, to use our term, realization) advanced by Freud, which was used to characterize the relative situation of markets, the market and the social, remains a mere analogy. Analogy may play a heuristic role in philosophy, but must be absolutely no more than this. If philosophy is and remains essentially Platonic, this is due to its unbending commitment to real definition, something which analogical argument can never provide. That ours is a intellectual culture of extrinsic connections, forged through habitual similarities, is no justification for the plague of analogy in ‘theory’ today — the need for a critique of analogical reasoning is pressing. In a nutshell, the analogy between psychic structure and the situation of the market will have to be made into a real identity. On the other hand, the mechanism of evaluation, according to which intensive price is captured and transformed into value, remains unexplained.
In the previous chapter, a minimal social theory was drawn from the work of Deleuze and Guattari. The essential feature of this theory was the component we have called the social surface — the intensive locus in which processes are inscribed. This will allow us to close the circle of the investigation that began with the consideration of derivatives, and to explain the nature of the relationship between the market and the social.
The present is the temporality proper to the social. Following Deleuze’s remarkable analysis of time in Difference and Repetition, this claim may be read in two different ways, each implying a vision of society itself. On the one hand, in keeping with mainstream economics, psychology and what we could call ‘ego sociology’, the social solely consists of human agents, each confronting the range of options for every given choice in cognitive solitude, and acting to attain their rationally determined preferences. From this point of view, there is only the present, because all there is to the social is this perennial act of choice. The past, as former presents, has no bearing or grip on the present present because the passage of time makes no difference to the rational agent itself. The future, as the next choice, does not yet exist — but it comes to the same thing to say that the future is already present in the present, embodied in the rational agent itself; for, if time makes no difference to the one who chooses, then this formal function remains invariant. This can also be put in a third way: that, from this point of view, time makes no difference at all to agency in the social — which is to say that there is no time. That infamous Thatcherite emblem of neo-conservative and libertarian discourse, that there is no society, follows from this. The first way of interpreting the statement that the present is the temporality proper to the social is thus that the present qua agency is all that the social is.