WINNING IN THE REAL FAKE
On the fakeness of our reality and how to fight NFT capitalism with its own crypto kitties.
- Dec 17 2021
- Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou is the author of Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World (University of Chicago Press, 2022). He is Associate Professor of Sociology at University College London, where he leads the Sociology & Social Theory Research Group. His current book project, tentatively titled Real Fake, is an intellectual history of conspiracy politics and distortion technologies in finance capitalism.
Wither consensual reality
We live in a reality crisis. From the explosion of ‘fake news’ and the appeal of conspiracy theories like QAnon, to the resurgence of New Age subcultures, digital astrology and the metaverse, symptoms of our ‘post-truth condition’ are everywhere to be seen: a fractured present moment when everything seems a little bit true and nothing appears entirely false. Our experiences of this crisis become more disorienting, as even agreement on the most basic facts becomes impossible despite looming world disasters. Why, then, do we take flight from consensual reality in drones, when we seem to most need it?
Political philosophers have long considered ‘consent’ to a shared reality as central to the workings of political power. For John Locke, it was the consent to authority and domination that allowed society to function, while for Rousseau it was a consent to the ‘social contract’ between the governed and the governing of liberal democracies. In all cases, the state’s power lay in its capacity to shape societies’ sense of a collective reality - even if it often turned out to be illusory. With the emergence of capitalism, the question of a consensual, ‘factual’ reality becomes even fuzzier. People are irrational - the system’s avowed theorists proclaim – and their knowledge limited, and so their views of the world will always be deceptive.
The only undistorted reality is that of markets, because markets are uniquely able to correct individual distortions (the impulsive decisions of poorly informed traders) by ‘pricing them out.’ Prices (and not facts, or ideas) thus become the markers of capitalist reality - how markets reach their famous equilibrium - and prices cannot lie. Or can they?
Technologies of distortion
To make sense of the present crisis, we must probe the illusive nature of capitalist reality. Exposing the markets’ pernicious fakery has been a major preoccupation of capitalism’s critics for centuries. Most famously, Marx told a compelling story of capitalism as a double deception. On the one hand, capitalist ideology is, at its essence, a lie that alienates society from social reality. On a deeper level, prices tell a ‘truth’ that disguises real values underneath: the workers’ labor power.
But in interrogating our alienated experiences of ‘post-truth’ capitalism we would be wrong to merely focus on its compulsion to deceive by leading us astray from ‘real facts’. Rather, the moment demands that we turn our attention to capitalism’s more insidious power to distort: to generate a seemingly muddled yet ultimately resonant reality in which fact is no longer distinguishable from fiction. To put it differently: distortion doesn’t presuppose a clean move from truth to lies. It represents a state of blending the two as a way of creating new meaning, with which to navigate the ‘noise’ of an increasingly confusing world, and cope with the overabundance of information we no longer know what to do with. In acoustics, a distortion can even be desirable when, by altering audio signals, it produces clearer sound as a final output, so that all we can hear as listeners are the distorted pure waves – in a distortion that ‘makes sense’. Similarly, popular ‘fake news’ narratives today mix facts (about a deeply corrupt capitalist system of power) and fibs (about a looming apocalypse) in ways that oddly resonate with our vertiginous everyday experiences.
To find the greatest wizards of distortion we need look no further than finance. Financiers muster distortion to ‘read the markets’ and calibrate ‘false signals’ – the noise of price data that skews the reality of underlying market trends. Often, they even seek to amplify such noise in order to mask their movements and conceal their gambits, and in doing so, to beat ‘irrational crowds’ that drive markets to ‘manias’, ‘frenzies’, and ‘bubbles’. A long history of financial crashes has shown, however, that it is practically impossible to distinguish between noise and ‘real’ information in everyday trading. Speculators master this grey area of uncertainty about the very nature of reality, finding profit opportunities where outsiders may only see chaos. In today’s automated high-frequency trading, machine-learning algorithms mine such vast quantities of complex data about the past, present, and future, searching for signals in the noise, that even traders are unable to fully decipher (let alone prove) their own forecasts. Yet their frantic, superhuman competitive searching ironically creates more and more noise. Observable data recedes increasingly in favor of a mystifying market reality, which calls for new leaps of faith.
NFTs and conspiracy worlds
Finance’s most popular distortion technologies can be found in the trading of cryptocurrencies, meme stocks, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). NFTs represent digital values without real world referents, rather simply the right to claim ownership of entirely virtual ‘assets’.
They can be ‘crypto kitties’ (the blockchain game in which players breed and sell virtual cats), viral Tweets or TikTok videos – part of a meme economy that seems untethered from reality. NFTs are tokens of gamified ‘other worlds’ constructed through evading the very distinction between the marketplace and everyday life – and, ultimately, between what is real and what is fake. Yet the impact of NFTs on our ‘material reality’ is far from fake – yielding extraordinary profits on the one hand, and dispensing a colossal carbon footprint on the other. What makes their distortion so distinctive is their deeper rooting into our chaotic social and cultural world – the ways in which they become an integral part of the immersive everyday reality of what we may call the real fake of capitalism.
Conspiracy worlds work in a much similar way. Although it is tempting to imagine the incredible ‘truth claims’ made by anti-vaxxers or by the followers of QAnon as a departure from ‘obvious reality’ (and therefore as a deviation from ‘reason’), these movements in fact emerge from the same territory of distortion as gamified speculative finance. They create obscure ‘other worlds’ conjured in the ‘cloud’ enveloping our everyday virtual lives – both in the sense of the remote computational space where all our data now exists, and in terms of the dizzying effect of fast-circulating ‘alternative facts’. Like the untethered, augmented reality of NFTs, conspiratorial facts are neither accurate nor entirely fictional. They may deploy deception (and sometimes channel self-delusion), but fundamentally, their strength lies in acknowledging and weaponizing distortion as a defining feature of the uncertain world which they strive to traverse.
Conspiracy movements generate not mere fibs and lies but complex myths and shared cosmologies. They can be seen as the most widely accessible – and, so often, deeply regressive – distortion technology on offer in the politics of real fake capitalism. The questions to ask, then, are: can distortion technologies be wielded towards a more radical democratic reality? And, what would it take to win in the real fake?
There is an Alternative
To answer these questions, we must move beyond the ‘truth versus lies’ binary that besets media and scholarly responses to the so-called post-truth moment. We need a new critical theory of reality, with a greater sensitivity to the swarm-like politics of gamified conspiratorialism that is currently unfolding near and far. Such a critical theory should offer new vistas for our confusing world, not through a quixotic pursuit of ‘enlightening’ the misinformed and ‘debunking’ their chimeras, but by recognizing that today’s ‘broken’ reality is itself the new field of struggle.
This recognition echoes the compelling argument put forward recently by Graeber and Wengrow: their call for acknowledging the historical power of social movements “to create new and different forms of social reality”. But it also adds a crucial further step: the need to fight capitalism’s dominant distorted reality on its own turf. In taking this step, we must not make the mistake of treating it merely as an ‘epistemological struggle’ – as a power conflict between competing truth claims. The history of radical politics, from Black Power to global anti-colonial movements, is brimming with imaginative forms of resistance that drew on conspiratorial thinking to counter the tyranny of racist and ‘white truths’. Conflict and non-consensus around the shared experiences of suffering were the basis from which new political realities emerged in this process.
Our present bewildering experiences of uncertainty in the real fake make one thing abundantly clear: declaring a war between science and fiction is just as misleading as the fantasy of There is No Alternative – the deceptive rationality of austerity preached by neoliberalism’s prophets for decades. Today’s democracies are under no threat from ‘fake news’. The greatest danger is surrendering control of the real fake and allowing our collective myths – our own distortions of reality – to atrophy in the face of systemic oppression. To avoid this, our myth-making must aim to not only unveil the dominance of capitalist ideology but also create more meaningful distorted realities, which will allow us to experience freer and more pleasurable lives.