The Crypting Point

Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World BY Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou. CHICAGO: University of Chicago Press. 208 pages. $28.

The cover of Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World

WHAT WAS ELON MUSK PLANNING when he began to quietly buy up Twitter stock in late January of this year? In paperwork filed with the SEC, Musk originally indicated he had no designs on becoming an activist investor, and when his stake—at that point just over 9 percent—was made public in April, Musk accepted an invitation to join the company’s board. A few days later, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal announced that Musk had changed his mind and would not be joining the board, and less than a week later, Musk announced a takeover offer: he would buy out stockholders at the theoretically humorous price of $54.20 a share, and take Twitter private. 

Had this been his plan all along? A few hours after the announcement, Musk seemed to admit to a rapturous audience at ted that he didn’t actually have funding secured for this offer. (“I am not sure that I will actually be able to acquire it,” he told venture capitalist Chris Dixon in a wide-ranging stage interview where he also revealed that he is often “literally on the toilet” when he tweets.) And then, not quite two weeks later, he suddenly did: $21 billion of his own money, and a commitment from various financial institutions to loan him the other $25.5 billion necessary to buy the remaining 91 percent of Twitter stock. Twitter’s board quickly agreed to Musk’s offer, and the buyout process began. By the end of the year, Elon Musk will wholly own Twitter. At least . . . maybe he will? Probably he will? After the spasmodic process through which he eventually made his buyout offer, it seems foolish to treat anything as a sure bet.

What was the point of this whole strange exercise? Surely not to make money: Twitter has never demonstrated a consistent ability to generate profits. Even if it had, Musk is the richest man on the planet, and throughout his long history of manipulating asset prices by shitposting on Twitter—which is what many assumed he was doing at first—he’s never really shown an interest in cashing in on the movements he can provoke in the stock market. Musk had tweeted vaguely about Twitter’s responsibilities around free speech given its status as the “de facto public town square,” and leftists and progressives on Twitter worried that Musk had a plan to buy the company in order to reopen the site to right-wing trolls. But why would Musk, for whom Twitter is an essential business and investment tool, scare off the retail investors and journalists he needs as his audience? Right-wing trolls don’t buy Tesla stock, and they certainly don’t write credulous headlines about Musk’s tunnel company.

Perhaps Musk had no scheme in mind for his initial purchase, no specific plan for owning Twitter, and no ultimate goal he was striving to achieve. Over the last decade, as the Tesla cofounder has become the most prominent and widely worshipped CEO in the country, he has consistently defied stereotypes of businessmen and entrepreneurs as rational, prudent, and deliberate; instead he’s become a specialist in broken promises, half-baked plans, and bizarre public performances. And yet his net worth has soared to $255 billion. If “winging it” has worked for him so far, why start making plans now? Maybe he is simply making a mess, to see what might come out of it—what kinds of pressure he could bring to bear on Twitter, and what kinds of business, cultural, and political opportunities might follow.

Musk, according to this line of thinking, is engaging in what the University College London sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou calls, in his intriguing new book Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World, “speculative politics”: “sowing chaos to reap power.” He hasn’t been pursuing a clear program, laid out from the beginning in the manner of a mergers-and-acquisitions banker, but embracing confusion and volatility and changing circumstances in the manner of a financial speculator. For Komporozos-Athanasiou, this logic—of financial speculation, of engaging, embracing, and even encouraging volatility in the hopes of gain—is the defining logic of our time, a consequence of increasing unpredictability and precarity. “If the only certainty in our present is that the future is uncertain, then shorting and hedging the unknowable becomes the zeitgeist of contemporary financialized societies,” he writes. Confronted with a turbulent world, we give up on rational risks and predictable returns, and instead place wagers on a widening range of incomputable outcomes—not only in how we approach questions of money and the economy, but also in how we engage in politics, culture, and our social and romantic lives.

To Komporozos-Athanasiou, the global financial crisis heralded a “momentous historical shift.” During the epoch that ended in 2008, life could be grinding and miserable, or pleasant and satisfying, but it was, above all, predictable: the economy grew; debts were repaid (or the debtors disciplined); auto-company CEOs generally did not hold corporate events at which they introduced a human in a robot costume and insisted that the company would be mass-producing humanoid robots in two years. But the promissory logic that legitimized and undergirded this system was fatally undermined in the public eye by the crash, the subsequent bank bailouts, and the years of austerity and sluggish growth that followed. The stable certainties of life in the pre-crash world—careers, home ownership, genteel and polished presidents—have given way to “collective experiences of uncertainty” like “labor precariousness, rent dependency, indebtedness, emotional insecurity, and political instability.” Even parenting: as I wrote this essay, I received a parenting-advice newsletter about the lack of clear knowledge about COVID-19 from the economist Emily Oster. “Living with this uncertainty may be hard,” she writes, “but there is no alternative.”

Consequently, our approach to the world has changed. Where prediction once reigned, speculation now dominates. You can see this at the most literal level in the rise of gig-platform apps like Uber—where the once-simple acts of hailing or driving a cab become adventures in speculation—wagers on whether the price of a ride will rise or fall in the next five minutes, but you can also see it on a discursive level in social media, where users stake out speculative positions (called “takes”) on volatile reputational marketplaces. You even see it, Komporozos-Athanasiou argues, in the success of “populist” politicians and initiatives from the Greek bailout referendum to Brexit to Trump, votes for which can be understood as speculative wagers on “possible, yet uncertain, outcomes”—and, for some, as endorsements of a chaos from which a political gambler might profit and take power.

Speculative Communities is a multilayered and wide-ranging book, drawing on history, sociology, philosophy, political science, and even, at one point, astrology. This breadth can sometimes weaken the book’s force: it can be a bit too easy, as Komporozos-Athanasiou moves briskly from late-nineteenth-century Chicago to twenty-first-century Chinese social-media apps to Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis to dating apps, to lose track of where and how the many ideas and arguments meet. But the density of resources and ideas is also energizing, and the frameworks it provides for understanding developments like Musk’s dalliance with Twitter are extremely useful for anyone interested in the overlapping worlds of technology, finance, and politics.

Komporozos-Athanasiou’s point is not so much that every sphere of life is programmatically ordered as a speculative market, but that we find ourselves assuming—sometimes by choice, sometimes by default—the attitude of speculators in everyday life. If the world in the years before the global financial crisis was defined by the business-minded rationality of the entrepreneur—save and invest now, reap and profit later—activity in the years since is better characterized by the creative imagination of the financial speculator, who embraces, seeks to profit from, and perhaps even attempts to intensify volatility. John Stuart Mill’s infinitely rational, “risk-taking, entrepreneurial agent” homo economicus is giving way to a new species of hominid, which Komporozos-Athanasiou names homo speculans: “a politically disoriented, speculative subject who accepts rather than averts the future’s radical uncertainty.” 

Homo speculans and homo economicus are, of course, “imaginary species rarely found in their pure form,” types that can be embodied to differing degrees in differing contexts. Nevertheless, it’s a useful framework for understanding the distinction Komporozos-Athanasiou is drawing. You might imagine some Goofus and Gallant–style panels: homo economicus buys stock in businesses with good fundamentals, because that’s a reliable guide to future profits; homo speculans buys shares in companies that get mentioned on Reddit, because other people might buy them too. Homo economicus votes for mainstream political candidates in order to maintain a stable, if deadening, order; homo speculans votes for populists derided as unrealistic just to shake up the system. Homo economicus consults bankers, lawyers, and strategists; homo speculans semi-accidentally shitposts himself into a successful hostile takeover attempt.

Maybe most importantly, homo economicus is an isolated individual, while homo speculans, in Komporozos-Athanasiou’s formulation, is a member of a “speculative community.” The delegitimation of neoliberal reason not only increases volatility, it also undermines the previous regime’s insistence on atomized individuals and family units. “Struggles of speculation and insurance,” then, “are experienced more intensely but also more collectively.” Here Speculative Communities draws on Benedict Anderson’s famous study of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, which argued that the collapse of anciens régimes around the world and the rise of print-media capitalism in the wake of the industrial revolution created new uncertainties around which the “imagined communities” of nationalism could coalesce. For Komporozos-Athanasiou, a similar process is at work in the early twenty-first century: the recent collapse of neoliberal legitimacy and the rise of a heavily financialized digital capitalism have produced new uncertainties, out of which grow speculative communities, bound together by shared precarity and a stabilizing account of the future. 

It’s easy to see the “speculative communities” at work in straightforwardly financial spaces like the subreddit r/WallStreetBets, whose short squeeze on GameStop stock in 2021 was not a scattering of semirandom, possibly profitable individual bets but a collective wager, taken out by a community with a shared narrative about the present (“Fat cat Wall Street short sellers are screwing us over”) and future (“the pandemic will end and retail video-game stores and movie theaters will rise again”). Or the cheery missionaries of “Web3,” who organize themselves on a social level into decentralized joint-stock companies called DAOs, each with its own crypto token trading on the open market. (It’s hard to think of a more on-the-nose example of a “speculative community” than one in which you are literally invited to speculate on the community.)

But Komporozos-Athanasiou is clear that, as finance’s logic colonizes other spheres, “speculative communities” can and do arise well beyond the narrow confines of markets and trading floors. He suggests that France’s gilets jaunes, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, and Black Lives Matter each have aspects of speculative communities, even if they are not literally speculating on assets, as all “endorse uncertainty as a condition of possibility,” and generate “a renewed sense of synchronicity and narrative” among participants. The adoring fan base that has sprung up around Musk and Tesla, vehemently defending him and excusing the absurd faults of its electric cars wherever they are besmirched online, is a kind of speculative community as well. After all, nothing says “endorsing uncertainty” and “embracing the unknown” like getting behind the wheel of a car with brakes that might malfunction due to a firmware update made the night before.

What all these speculative communities share, of course, is a reliance upon the internet. A wireless connection is not required for speculation—Komporozos-Athanasiou traces the speculative response to political instability and economic uncertainty back to the “bucket shops” of postbellum Chicago, where anyone on the street could walk in and place a bet on the movement of commodity prices, and where speculative activity was both a bane and a resource for farmers and other agrarian populists—but just as the speculative imagination of the nineteenth century was enabled by new technologies like the telegraph and the stock ticker, which “sensationalized the performance of speculation,” homo speculans is now called back into being by an extraordinarily financialized tech sector, inserted as a layer into our lives. 

Finance-inflected, “commodified digital infrastructures” like Twitter, TikTok, and Tinder are “speculative technologies,” which rely on and spread imaginative speculation across their platforms, on multiple levels. “Disruptive” Silicon Valley platforms like Airbnb and Uber—which are the beneficiaries of speculative investments by venture capitalists and sovereign wealth funds—rely on unclear regulatory environments and sectoral volatility to capture market share; those platforms’ clients, such as advertisers on social media, are obligated to participate in complex auctions for an uncertain chance at capturing a user’s attention; for users, most familiarly, ancient human spheres of activity (chatting, dating, doing viral dance crazes) are reformed into markets governed by black-box sorting mechanisms whose logic renders them volatile and unpredictable. If there’s a god of speculation, we call it The Algorithm, and we worship and fear it.

This formulation is extremely valuable in understanding a company like Meta, formerly known as Facebook. A common criticism of tech platforms in general, and of social media in particular, is that they act as mechanisms of control and conformity, seeking to eliminate bothersome unpredictability. Komporozos-Athanasiou quotes Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: for surveillance capital, “there can be no shadow, no darkness. The unknown is intolerable.” But if Facebook or its kindred are speculative technologies, this gets it exactly backward. In fact, Komporozos-Athanasiou writes, “the industry’s greatest strength lies in its successful embedding of uncertainty within its complex and opaque platforms.” It’s the volatility and unpredictability of TikTok or YouTube—the occluded rules of their recommendation algorithms—that offer users the enticing possibility of viral success and the constant thrill of novel stimulation. Even the companies themselves are in the dark. As has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last two decades, Mark Zuckerberg and his peers have almost no clue what is happening on, or because of, the platforms they’ve built. Invasive though they may be, the vast surveillance mechanisms Silicon Valley has put in place offer no real hope of control or even a particular depth of insight. The best analogy for the tranches of data produced by these companies isn’t the police report or the intelligence dossier but the stock ticker: a close, constant measurement of the strength of passions and the direction of sentiments in marketplaces, offering up spot prices to bidders competing for various kinds of attention. 

This, ultimately, is why Musk’s bid to buy Twitter—as uncertain as it might be—is so appropriate. I certainly don’t have any faith that Musk could (or even wants to) make Twitter better accountable to its responsibilities as a “town square.” But Twitter isn’t a deliberative space, where citizens gather to debate politics and lead society—it’s a speculative market, where traders stake out discursive positions against the value of their brands, and fans and partisans gather to imagine unlikely but not impossible new futures. Who better to own and direct one of the premier speculative technologies, the platform that has done more than any other to introduce the logic of speculation to political and journalistic discourse, than the epitome of homo speculans? Musk is, tragically but undoubtedly, the world soul of this era, all the chaotic, destructive, annoying energies of finance and the internet concentrated at a single point, astride a Cybertruck, reaching out over Twitter and mastering it.

Max Read is the proprietor of Read Max, a newsletter about the future.