“Measured from our beginning (last year), the Robin portfolio is now up by 32,04%. During the same period, SPX is up 21,85%. From the start of our second year (1 August 2013), the Robin portfolio is up 2,80% vs. 0,12% for SPX.”
The maturation of insurrectionary finance
“Very significant is the creation of the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative, which uses a parasitic algorithm to funnel Wall Street funds to irrigate the commons, it is the Piketty thesis as a reverse practice. This interview with one of the founders on the Democratization of Finance is a must read for the year 2014.”
Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative’s “Parasite Algorithm”
by David Evan Harris / Sept 11, 2013
I’m fascinated to learn of a new “asset management cooperative” coming out of Finland—Robin Hood Minor Asset Management. Their business model is particularly astounding—they take pride in their Parasite Algorithm, which “identifies successful transactions by riding the coattails of successful investors.” Profits are then shared with “Robin Hood Projects,” including “grants for creative work, no interest loans, or anything else,” to be determined by the members of the cooperative. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the Robin Hood Tax movement, which is in turn connected to the ATTAC movement and the much older Tobin Tax (recently implemented in Italy). The big difference though is that this “counter investment cooperative” is apparently using their market savvy to simply produce a Tobin Tax-style effect from the ground up. If it actually works, it will be a pretty fascinating and fantastic closed loop mechanism for pumping money into philanthropy without having to pass through the cycle of personal accumulation beforehand. Their nod to critical social theory á la Guy Standing in their language (i.e. “precariat”) also indicates a leftist political savvy not commonly found in the investment-algorithm-writing classes. Of course, leave it to Finland, my favorite quasi-socialist economic powerhouse of a nation to give birth to such an idea. (I miss you Helsinki!) Even if, like me, you don’t have any giant wads of traditional capital sitting around to throw their way, you can get in early with some social capital and show your support with a “like” at the Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Facebook page.
CROWD COMPETENCE for INVESTMENT BANKING
by Timo Honkela / August 07, 2013
“Five years ago, the Adaptive Knowledge Representation and Reasoning conference (AKRR 2008) took place. The conference program included a special session on creativity and innovation. Sakari Virkki gave an interesting and thought provoking talk related to investment banking. He described his system that had every year outperformed Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market index. The system is based on crowdsourcing in such a manner that all members of the community are not considered equally important but their competence is carefully analyzed by the system. The latest version of the system has mapped and ranked the activity of 10,000 investors and 30,000 instruments at work in US stock exchanges. After 2008, Virkki has joined forces with the economist Akseli Virtanen to establish Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative.”
For more than a decade, Finnish researcher Sakari Virkki developed an investment portfolio whose annual rate of return at the end of 2012 was 129.24% above that of the S&P500, an index generally acknowledged as the leading gauge of performance in U.S. stock markets. Employing his new methodology at an incredibly low operating cost, Virkki could have developed his model into a high-profit investment bank and retired early to a private island. But he didn’t. Instead, Virkki joined forces with economist Akseli Virtanen to establish Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative, a self-purported alternative investment model that challenges the big banks. Unique to Robin Hood is its profit allocation structure. Members retain 50% of their profits for themselves and the rest is put toward the Robin Hood Fund, a community pool which may, in the future, be dispersed as interest-free loans, grants, or other resources. In an organization where all members receive one vote, regardless of how many shares they own – and where everyone’s voice is heard, no matter how long it takes – the task of designing a system through which projects could be selected and funded is a sizable undertaking yet to be completed. “Even if Robin Hood might look like a purely financial operation,” Virtanen says, “it is in its essence a social experiment… an experiment on the cooperation to come.” One of the growth challenges Robin Hood faces is convincing potential members to relinquish 50% of their capital returns. Hoping to appeal to a larger group of prospective “Robins” – as members are affectionately called – the cooperative will offer more conservative profit allocation options in 2013. It wasn’t an easy decision for Managing Director Jan Ritsema, who writes, “Greediness and generosity … With this mix every investor is confronted; that is for me the RHAMC.” With the cooperative’s beta year scheduled to end in July 2013 and a serious global membership drive about to begin, small development teams meet in cafes and classrooms at Aalto University’s School of Economics to plot out the future of Robin Hood.
Their board meetings and development workshops can be described as orderly chaos; topics change rapidly from a passionate discourse on the financialization of the economy to the existential philosophy behind the cooperative’s logo. Robin Hood sells itself as another way to Occupy Wall Street and a solution which, according to Virtanen, “bends the financialization of [the] economy – which is a fact – into the benefit of the precarious worker.” At the core of the cooperative is an international group from all walks of life, such as artists, academics, economists, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and more, who recognize the negative effects of a system in which the means of production include not only giving your time, effort and attention, but also giving up your soul – your language, creativity, affects and emotions – to your work. Virtanen explains: “Robin Hood is a critique of these relations, these conditions, for example: that you need to work to get access to money, or more often first take debt, and then work. Robin Hood tries to provide access to money which is not tied to the necessity to work. Robin Hood tries to think of another relationship with money, not as binding us with debt and capitalism as a historical form of production, but as a means of freedom, escape, and increase of independence. It is good to have some money in your pocket. It gives you freedom.” Like the legendary archer of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood as a cooperative aims to empower the laymen and what its many PhD-holding members refer to as precarious workers, the increasing portion of the population who work relentlessly but are not able to achieve financial stability. The cooperative’s modus operandi is to provide a rate of return rivaling that of the world’s top investment banks at a fraction of the cost. The extraordinary returns which allow for a competitive personal return, even after donating to the Robin Hood Fund, are made possible by Virkki’s discovery of a third paradigm of investing, what he calls “competence analysis.” The system operates on the premise that competencies such as knowledge, education, experience – all factors that affect investors’ performance – are not evenly distributed in the market.
The investment analyst behind Robin Hood is a virtual agent which monitors the public feed of select stock exchanges and tracks the competencies of various investors and their stocks in many-to-many relationships, capturing the wisdom of the crowd and creating an agent whose recommendations are based on the consensus among highly competent investors. For the past ten years it has mapped and ranked the activity of all of the 10,000 investors and 30,000 instruments at work in US stock exchanges; a continuously updated database provides a clear breakdown of the best investment options. If Virkki was managing the fund in the United States, it would have been ranked the third best-performing portfolio in the country in 2012, compared with Newsweek’s 2012 Rankings. Competence analysis revolutionizes efforts to discern and allocate resources to the most efficient users. The 21st century Robin Hood doesn’t need to pillage royal carriages; the merry men have innovated their tactics.
HEDGE FUND of the PRECARIAT
Democratizing the Power of Finance
A Discussion about Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative with Akseli Virtanen
Pekka Piironen: What is Robin Hood?
Akseli Virtanen: Robin Hood is an asset management cooperative we established in June 2012. It is a counter-investment bank of the precariat, which is rethinking means of finance and financial services. We are bending the financialization of economy into our benefit.
Pekka: How do you do it?
Akseli: We operate a massive dynamic data mining algorithm – we call it the “Parasite” – which logs into the brains of the bankers at Wall Street and they don’t even know it. We know exactly what they do and when. We know who can make money consistently with certain instruments. Robin Hood is our means to share this knowledge. In the first year, the value of our portfolio rose 30,74%. With this result were the third best hedge fund in the world. Now, after the second year, we are up 40,15%.
Pekka: Some time ago the biggest Nordic newspaper headlined “Robin Hood robs from the financial elite. Asset management for those without assets. Robin Hood received marching orders from Aalto University and annoyed the art audience at Kassel Documenta. Is the mysterious Robin Hood Co-op an investment club, art or philosophy? Akseli, how does that sound?
Akseli: I think that asset management for those without assets is quite a good headline. We talk about minor asset management. It is our business.
“Minor” is a concept which comes from Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s conceptual toolbox. They took it from Kafka’s diaries, where he was talking about authors within major language who where nevertheless able to make it transform into something else… their own… by making it crumble and stammer, by operating in the tissues and edges, from within, by the same language but turning it into something else. It is an attempt to think about political means, means of change, where there is no outside. Minor is something that always brings together personal and political. It is always about making our existential territories more habitable. And it is always something collectively produced. It changes power relations by changing the conditions of situation. It works for “a people to come” by opening new routes and processes of becoming. So, minor asset management is a very special way of managing assets – a way that makes something new possible when it looks like nothing new is possible. A becoming. This is our invention. But it is also management of the assets of minorities, in the Kafka’s sense, who will and can never become major, but will always remain like a spit in the salad. And it is management of minor assets, small assets, this is our other particularity. A lot of small assets working together. We don’t mind the connotation of being under age… not legally responsible, a minor, in a process of still becoming… neither as an attribute to our way of managing assets or to the assets managed, there is something true there too.
“Marching orders” from Aalto University is perhaps not quite accurate, because we were not courting in any way, but in the middle of a normal establishment of a start-up or a spin-off company – which was, by the way, what they were hoping from the Future Art Base from the beginning. Aalto Arts is badly disadvantaged here in comparison to the Schools of Business and Technology in the University. What was frustrating in these “marching orders” was that the university management didn’t really care to find out what this project was about, they just fired us because Robin Hood was thought to be potentially dangerous to the reputation of the university. That was their exact wording. The decision was a preemptive solution and it was never explained or justified for us in an way. This is how arbitrary power works, it tries to organize and control the possibility of our action and thought.
“Investment club” is also an exciting choice of words, I don’t exactly know what it means. We are a normal Finnish company operating under the Finnish law. The form of the company is a cooperative. And we are in the middle of establishing the Robin Hood America in Silicon Valley. Philosophy, that we certainly are – especially in so far as we can think that the task of philosophy is to create new concepts – but politics might have been more understandable in terms of our context, starting points and aims. Is Robin Hood business, art of politics? This is an interesting starting point for any discussion.
Pekka: And why the name Robin Hood?
Akseli: Everybody knows what Robin Hood does. In the age of semiotic inflation and information overload, we don’t want to spend too much time explaining. You know, you need to get it in a different way. The roots of Robin Hood are in the British Forest Law which allowed Norman kings to add more and more common forest areas under their ownership. Villages, houses, fields and even churches were destroyed to add new land to king’s forests. Inhabitants of those areas were thrown away without food, resources, opportunities and prospects. They had very limited options of survival, some submitted, some became informers, conmen, traitors and other form of opportunists, the local officers were corrupted providing their services to those who could pay. And the punishments were severe: Robin Hood got his death penalty for poaching king’s deer in Sherwood.
Pekka: In a sense not that different from the situation today?
Akseli: Now, six hundred years later we see new “Forest Laws” being enforced everywhere and the common is again under threat. Again we need the financial services of Robin Hood, our methods are just a little different due to the changed circumstances: now we follow all transactions at the US stock exchanges, make databanks of market actors, deconstruct them from individuals into dividuals, to extract their most knowledge and capabilities and put them to work for us. But the consequences are the same: The Sheriffs of Nottingham are again clueless when they can’t anymore withhold King’s deers or guard the routes of the wealth expropriated from the people. Robin Hood’s business is minor asset management. It means sharing and democratizing the power of finance.
Pekka: You have talked about Robin Hood as a parasite of financial economy and providing access to money which is not tied to the necessity to work?
Akseli: There are two points here: First, parasite is a concept by Michel Serres. What is important here is what it tells of the relationship we have with the financial market and its players. We let them do all the work and just imitate them. Why? Because, as Serres writes, the one who plays the position will always beat the one who does the content. The latter is simple and naïve, the former complex and intelligent. By playing the position we dominate the relationship. It means that we have a relationship with the relationship itself. It is the meaning of the prefix “para” in the word parasite: to be on the side, not on the thing, but on the relationship. Parasite has relationships, it makes a system out of them.
Secondly, there is today an asymmetrical division between those who are able to create money by transforming it into financial capital (to earn money as separate income without a necessity to work) and those whose only access to money is to work, possibly at any cost and condition – or first take debt, and then work. And furthermore, these two forms of money, the money you get for doing work (money as means of payment, money as means of exchange), and money as capital, have very different powers. Or more precisely, the former has no power, it is money castrated of any power, while the latter has a power to command future. It represents nothing, it has no equivalent, except in future exploitation of labor, nature and society. Robin Hood is developed as a strategic means to challenge this debt mechanism of control and of limiting our future. We offer also this other group of people a possibility of income which is not tied to the necessity to work. An access to money as capital. It is a very concrete opening of the field of possible. It is an element of independence. That is why we can talk about democratization of finance. Or of profanation of finance: of taking something sacred, which we are not allowed to touch or which only the priests can touch and understand – just think about the economy, the financial market and its priests today – and returning it to common use and play.
Pekka: Robin Hood has been described as a “freak in the world of banking” established by a group of professors in economics and the arts in the Aalto University?
Akseli: This is true, even if the professors were maybe not the majority in this group. The founding members of the cooperative were: Tero Nauha, Karolina Kucia, Liisa Välikangas, Heidi Fast, Kari Yli-Annala, Jan Ritsema, Sakari Virkki, Teemu Mäki, Ana Fradique, Lauri Kananoja, Valentina Desideri, Pekka Piironen and Akseli Virtanen. There were years of preparation and building of momentum before this. At the moment there are in the board me, Jan, Tere Vaden and Tiziana Terranova, we have over three hundred members from fifteen different countries and are about to move to the next level of the operation.
Pekka: You have talked about Robin Hood also as a hedge fund of the precariat?
Akseli: Our aim is to bend the financialization of economy to the benefit of those who have this far been paying its costs: workers at the mercy of the precarization of work, suffering from the insecurization of labor market and social rights, growing indebtness, of decreasing price of labor and of downsizing of the welfare state. That states quite clearly the relationship of our starting points. Disinflation is the monetary relationship of the financialization of economy and precarization of work. We see this now very clearly in Europe. How is it possible for these deficits to exist without any inflation? Because the logic has changed, the logic of derivatives has provided a means to manufacture liquidity which does not devalue the base currency. That is why at the moment our collective capacity to assume debt and pay taxes and be the direct bearer of austerity measures – for governments downsize for one simple reason, to be able to borrow more – creates direct vehicles for financial capital accumulation (which are not investments 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 so well said. In financial economy the surplus is extracted more directly from this capacity than from the stagnating number of people employed to goods and services production. Today the growth in the forms of indebtedness is the condition for capital accumulation, just like expansion of labor force participation was for expanding commodity production.
In this situation, Robin Hood operates exactly like the hedge funds, and not like a “retail fund” of a bank. Robin Hood owns stock in other companies as the only asset, and operates with greater flexibility than banks. The investments of members are open ended and withdrawals are allowed only at certain moments of the fiscal year. The value is calculated as a share of the net asset value (NAV), which means that the increases and decreases in the value of cooperative’s investment assets and expenses are directly reflected in the amount a member can later withdraw. This is exactly what hedge funds do too, but what Robin Hood hedges, is precarity – it take’s a position in the financial market to offset and balance risk adopted by assuming a position at a contrary market, the precarious labor market, where so far people have just been paying the bills of financialization by letting it use our capability to assume debt and pay taxes as the main raw material for accumulation of financial assets. Robin Hood’s asset management is based on the idea at the origin of the derivative market: it is possible to produce new assets by means of hedging existing ones. Finance is essentially a technology to create spreads (through creation of doubts, uncertainty, volatility, constant threat of illiquidity) that are valued and can be arbitraged. Robin Hood is using in quite a smart way the same new capitalist financial alchemy of turning uncertainty into rent.
Pekka: By this you mean the Parasite algorithm, which takes advantage of the spreads and volatilities of the stock markets?
Akseli: Yes, exactly, from the beginning we said that we are utilizing the inefficiency of the financial market and our understanding of how public opinion, or market sentiment, organizes the multitude of actors at the market. We do big data. The Parasite, which Sakari has designed and developed, follows all the transactions at the US stock markets, identifies the spreads, the best actors, follows their swarming – and then imitates the emerging consensus action of the best players. Quite simply, the assets of the cooperative are invested at the market by following and imitating the emerging consensus action, or swarming, of the world’s best investors. The hypothesis of the efficient market is by the way one of the most important truths of the current economic policies. Our operation is based on a completely different understanding on how the market works and what are the mechanisms of creating economic value today, for example the role of flock behavior, origin of imitation and means of controlling a swarm in this.
Pekka: So you are following a computer program?
Akseli: I think it is funny, when the Parasite and Robin Hood are interpreted like this. We are dealing here with a little bit more “a computer program”… For example the whole Polemos book series we did in early 2000 with Tutkijaliitto was created for building this understanding and organization. There are wonderful books, 14 altogether, published in this series, from the best economic and political thinkers at the moment. For example Christian Marazzi’s Language and Capital, Maurizio Lazzarato’s Revolutions of Capitalism, Paolo Virno’s Grammar of Multitude, Franco Berardi’s Info-Labour and Precarious States of Mind, Bracha Ettinger’s Co-Poiesis, Félix Guattari’s Chaosmosis and Three Ecologies, also my book Critique of Biopolitical Economy and the famous Dictionary of New Work which was based on a long lecture series we organized at the School of Economics. It is important to understand that the parasite coded by Sakari is the essential part of the operation, but what is really important is the approach behind it, that is, the understanding of the changed nature of creation of value. I don’t know how I could emphasize this more. It sounds so funny, when somebody just says that here are these dudes investing based on a program – I mean after all the research and intellectual investment, years of theoretical and experimental work we have put into this. And there is the massive empirical testing of the Parasite carried out over six years 2003-2009 at the US stock markets, and even more importantly, Sakari’s research work on the algorithm and product development with the Parasite has been actually going on for more than 20 years. Robin Hood has not just dropped from the heaven.
Pekka: In the net discussions Robin Hood has been suspected to be a hoax, and it created also bewilderment by its appearance on the important contemporary art festival Kassel Documenta (13).
Akseli: But maybe it is a hoax? We think of us essentially as an organization build on this kind of distrust. We have noticed that we cannot fight against these “it must be a hoax” claims by arguments, somehow it seems that something more is here at stake, more than just communication of facts, something that goes beyond rational communication. I have thought that this kind of impossibility to accept Robin Hood as it is – as a monster and a parasite – tells about the bafflement in front of a paradox and about an attempt to deal with it by forcing Robin Hood into some familiar category (hoax, art project, greedy entrepreneurship etc.) so that one could sleep at night and go on with the self-evidencies of one’s life without inconvenient disturbances. Kassel Documenta was very important event for us in many senses. I think that the best economic analyses comes at the moment from the sphere of art, not from the departments of economics and business. So little interesting they have been able to say for example about the current European crises.
Pekka: Robin Hood has been in operation for two years. The co-op opened an office in June in Stuttgart? And the next ones in Berlin and Dublin?
Akseli: Yes, it is a working form which suits us. We can set it up in any space, in a café, a museum, a park, a university. We call it an office, a temporary office, where we, well, work like one does in the office…or how we imagine one works in the office… usually on particular themes like aesthetics of algorithmic production, rethinking financial services, crypto currency and equity, processes of the production of the common, some legal issues…depending on what is on our immediate agenda. But the office is open and anybody is welcome to listen or join us in the work. Usually we also meet local networks, people and institution who are interested in joining and cooperating with Robin Hood. The point is that we don’t want to go to just talk at some event, because we simply don’t have time for something like that, you know there is already too much communication…, so if we go somewhere we want to make sure it is worth while for us: we try to work together while there is a possibility for this and use these offices to do it. It is hard to get our people to the same place and time, as I am sure you know, as production has become spatially boundless and temporally endless. And we require that the organizers open their networks and put their ass on the line too: help us meet key people who could be interested in Robin Hood, also from cultural institutions (funds, museums, galleries), and from networks of real finance money, funds, wealthy individuals, artists, angel investors interested in production of commonfare, disruptive financial services and impact investments. We don’t organize to do Robin Hood, we do Robin Hood to organize.
Pekka: And there was an international audience: artists, activists, philosophers, professors? I saw the images of the Stuttgart office and it was full of diagrams and words like aesthetics of algorithmic production, growth, dividual, exhaustion of possible, machinic surplus value, commonfare, parresia, and that some radical philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari were dropped in the stream of the discussion?
Akseli: We are researchers of economy and organization. We knew already in the mid 1990’s that this will not become a picnic when we started using thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and then the Italian post-operaist writers to study and understand economy better instead of the main stream economic and business theory. Yet, without caring too much about the consequences, we continued with our work because we knew that we are right – that this was the right way if we wanted to really understand how economy and its organization works today. So with these thinkers we were able to understand, for example, how signs and meanings are part of real production and not only some kind ideology or superstructure of production, how the use of language can have real effects; and how the dynamic of the production of value is in the organization of a heterogeneity, of heterogeneous forces, and not only in the relationship between capital and labor; and how it is possible to control not only actual but potential action and thought. With them we also understood the blurring of the boundaries between economy and politics and how the paradoxes of immaterial production – for example, that relations weight and immaterial matters – cause problems to old approaches and distinctions, and that we need new concepts and methods if we want to understand what is going on. And that some of the key issues of the production value in economy today – like how to create a public, get its attention and keep and modulate it – have already been thought quite precisely in classical philosophy, rhetorics and dramaturgy, in semiotics and linguistic theory etc. Through this work we have now perhaps invented something significant: a new understanding of the creation of value at the financial market and a mechanism of distributing this knowledge, which we call Robin Hood and minor asset management
Pekka: Robin Hood is connected to the ideas on basic income, is Robin Hood trying to overturn capitalism through the stock exchange?
Akseli: Yes, the arguments for basic income are in fact quite similar. Our methods are just thought a little bit further. But “overturning” belongs to the political means of the last century and not those of Robin Hood. What is important for understanding Robin Hood, is to understand why the old political means of building independent life do not work anymore and why we need to invent new means. By the way, one very good analysis about this is your book “Economy of Insecurity”.
Pekka: Thanks man! I also think that my book is like a twin to your book about the arbitrary power working more on the micro economics and micro politics and mine on the macro economics and macro politics of semiocapitalism. What is Robin Hood’s relationship with art?
Akseli: We think that the relationship between art and economy, or art and politics, cannot be about content: art expressing views of social resistance or art making things more sellable is simply not relevant. We think that the common ground of art and politics and art and economy is today in the collapse of old forms of life and subjectivity and in the creation of new forms, this is where they meet, and this is where Robin Hood operates. What can these new forms be today? How can they be created? Robin Hood is a method to bring and hold together many essential but heterogeneous elements like art&economy&politics or opportunismðics&weapons industry… It creates a new form, a new combination, a paradox or monster that doesn’t fit the boundaries of normal life, the easy flow of things and action. This was also our question at the Kassel Documenta, where Robin Hood was presented as an experiment in the creation of new social forms.
We use art of course to camouflage, but more importantly to produce aesthetic surplus value, by trying to attach directly to art’s power to create unforeseen and unthinkable (economic, political, social, emotional, organizational…) processes. It is also interesting to ask what does Robin Hood do to art? It is non-representative, non-visual, non-performative, non-conceptual and it does not operative within the safe environment and castrated power space of ”Art”. Rather it uses art as an essential part of social organization, economy, politics and life – like art was used before it become something separate with its own axiological reference system, you know, in primitive societies for example dance, sound, plastic forms, signs in the body, ground and objects were essential part of the political organization, rituals, religious processes. From our perspective this is just pragmatics: we don’t really care if Robin Hood is art or politics or business, we are interested what we can do with it, what are its effects, does it make our existential territory more habitable or not.
Pekka: When thinking about it now, there was a good social scientific tradition of economic research, and research in general, at the department when we were preparing our dissertations. I think it is very nice that this is remembered, when we think about the direction of universities in Finland now.
Akseli: That is true. This tradition was quite strong at the department of organization and management in the early 1980’s, a few very strong and innovative initiatives to approach economy social theoretically were made there. I thought that our work was continuation of this work, in a little bit different circumstances and with a little bit different means. But basically we were trying to do the same: to understand how economy and organization worked. In the end of 1990’s there was a good group young researchers doing their PhD’s at the School of Economics – for example you, me, Tiina Vainio, Jaakko Leskinen, Klaus Harju, Jukka Mäkinen – which was called the “Economy Circle”. Risto Heiskala started then to call us the “deconstructionists of the School of Economics” which was a little bit more vivid and as such started spread as our name. For example, the first dissertation about Derrida and deconstruction in Finland came out from the School of Economics – it was Tiina’s dissertation. Jaakko Leskinen’s research on Gabriel Tarde, your’s on Nancy and Bataille, Klaus on Deleuze, me on Agamben, Simondon and Guattari… it was something great. Our friends at philosophy, sociology and political science departments did not believe that the School of Economics let us do this. Then we started to work closely with Risto Heiskala with whom we organized the legendary “Economy and Social Theory” lecture series for example – which has now come out in three volumes by Gaudeamus. And then Sakari Hänninen, Jakke Holvas, Jussi Vähämäki, Mikko Jakonen, Jukka Peltokoski joined and with each of them we did also many interesting things. I would especially like to thank professors Kari Lilja and Risto Tainio, who gave us an example of what does it mean to do research, what does an atmosphere of research mean.
Pekka: But now new winds are blowing in Aalto University, both in terms of financing and research topics. Originally, Robin Hood was a project in the Future Art Base co-ordinated by you for the university. It was presented as an university level top priority strategic initiative by the School of Arts in October. But after information on Robin Hood reached the highest management of the university, you were told that the financing for the whole Future Art Base will be terminated immediately. They said “Robin Hood is potentially dangerous to the reputation of the university”.
Akseli: It was a surprise that they did what they did – quite simply we were just fired – without even trying to find out what this project was about. A pre-emptive action. I want to say this because we had prepared Robin Hood very carefully, together with Aalto Center for Entrepreneurship and their lawyers, we knew that there was nothing “illegal” in Robin Hood.
Pekka: You say that Robin Hood is a paradox, a monster, an experiment in creating a new social form and that it irritates people?
Akseli: Yes, I would say that we are an experiment in creating a new social form. “Paradox”, “concept” and “monster” are attempts to articulate this new form. Robin Hood is about creation of these new forms of which I talked about before. Paradox reveals the limits of our current understanding. Monster instead is something unpleasant, disgusting and a-natural, where there are together elements which do not “normally” belong together like art, economy and politics. So Robin Hood looks like a financial operation, but in a strange way. It creates a foreign language inside the automatism of financial control, it is a parasite which exceeds the established meanings of finance, makes them stutter and mutate. It releases minor finance from major finance, it turns major assets into minor assets. It is minor asset management. And it is also an attempt of reactivating the body of general intellect. Not in the old political way, but in a paradoxical way. In a monstrous way. In an insolvent way. In a disgusting way. Robin Hood sounds like a ponzi scheme, a fake, or it could be a private group of aggressive entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of the naïve cultural people. It could be a hoax, a scam, or just an “art project”. It is unallowable, impossible and disgusting… a monster… But what is important is that it corresponds to our subjectivity.
Pekka: What is this subjectivity?
Akseli: Well, there is no heroism in the exhaustion and disillusionment we are experiencing. We have for example also described ourselves as a group of losers, sad figures, dark souls, cynical opportunists and depressed princesses. We are not tough or macho, we are soft and wet, impotent and feeble. We don’t march or demonstrate. We don’t do revolutions. We have difficulties in getting up from the bed. And we need each other to stand up. We are “molle” people, the future of cooperation1. This skepticism is not cognitive but ethical. The impasse is ethical and political at once, it affects our position, our exploration of the world. It is this dead end which is the breading ground of Robin Hood. Robin Hood is belief in this world, and not in some other.
Pekka: And the art audience in Kassel Documenta did not easily stomach the performance by such merry men and women of Robin Hood?
Akseli: It was a fairly elaborate installation or performance, whose form was a paradox. A lot has been written about it, but I can say it again: Robin Hood is an attempt to think about the possibility of cooperation in a condition where it seems that distrust, suspicion and exploitation of others have become the most important means of our survival. We have talked about these as the precarious states of mind. What does a cooperation of opportunists look like? How does a community of depressed function? Or cooperation in a situation where we are exhausted by the fact that we need to put all our thoughts, feelings, tastes and relationships to work all the time in every short term project we get. These states of mind are organic parts of the way in which the economy works. Economy has become production of subjectivity. Here is also the reason why the old political means – like solidarity, creation of a collective conscious subjectivity, creation of your own values – are not operational anymore and we need to create new forms, paradoxes, monsters which don’t fit to the normal easy flow of thought and action and may seem disgusting, especially from the perspective of the old morality of the left.
Robin Hood breaks the natural and easy flow of independent action and ready environments, with its specters of mistrusts, weaknesses, confusions, fears, impossibilities, non-commitments and insolvencies – around which we appeared in Kassel Documenta too. On the one hand it was a straight forward cold blooded pitch event to raise more assets under management and exploit the Documenta structure like the meanest motherfuckers of precariat would absolutely do. On the other hand, it was carried out in a way that was insolvent, which included presence of a risk of excess and deception, a semiotic insolvency, a paradoxical or poetic, non-sensical ambiguity of the project, which has not yet become communication but resonates with your subjectivity… which makes you “feel it”, and want to “touch it”, and forces the demonstrative gesture: “here”.
Pekka: The artistic director of Documenta accused you of concentrating only on money?
Akseli: Carolyn, who I really admire and like, got in the end perhaps little irritated and raised her voice to ask why do we only think about money, even if the whole Dokumenta13 for example was made with love! She said that money does not exist, only love. And the entire big art audience nodded and hummed as a sign of consensus. We answered that we know the situation very well, because we work and produce everything all the time only with love too – and it is exactly this which exhausts us. Robin Hood offers affective rest in this situation. This affective rest – that the members do not need to put all their abilities and skills and relationships to work, to create a community etc. – with still a possibility of income, is in the core of Robin Hood. Just invest your money, we will make it work and give you more back, and you can do what ever you want. You can save your love. We are a love bank. Documenta13 crystallized it almost perfectly.
Pekka: The profit made by Robin Hood is distributed to the members, who have the possibility of either keeping the whole amount or giving a part of it to the common pool of the co-op?
Akseli: That is right.
Pekka: The investments by Robin Hood have been doing really well?
Akseli: This is what I meant with the results. We have been able to create a start-up that financed itself already during its first year by income funding. And during the second year, we over ten folded our assets under management.
Pekka: Many newspaper reporters have asked about the proof of the existence of the portfolio?
Akseli: This is a very interesting question. How to be certain that the Robin Hood portfolio exists? How can you be certain of a value of something? Because this is what they are really asking: does Robin Hood really exist, does its portfolio exist, and how can they be certain of that. And then we have provide formal documents, company registry papers, auditing report of the accounting by Ernst & Young, our portfolio report by Interactive Brokers which is one of the most respected broker houses in the world. I don’t know what else we could do. I don’t know if they are as thorough when they go to a normal bank, what kind of evidence they ask to believe that this or that fund offered by the bank really exists? I wonder what would their banks answer if asked “do you really exist, does this fund really exist?”.
But it is good question. How to be certain that a portfolio of any investment bank, really exists? That is has value? Of what is this value made? You must trust. Think about the Bernie Madoff affair for example, the largest financial fraud in US history, how long he was able to carry on his investment scam, just because he was the ex-chairman of Nasdaq. The big banks spend billions to appear trustworthy and seduce people to trust them. That is their real business. And do you think we should trust them? I mean, after all we know, that they cheat, con, exploit clients for their own profit, manipulate formal interests rates, the incredible bonus systems… How is trust created, this is the question at core of Robin Hood. Unlike the normal banks and investment houses, we are fully transparent and not afraid of this question. How is value actually made? And this is also why the clergy tries to refuse our entrance to the temple, so that the emperors without clothes would not be revealed.
Pekka: The value of the Robin Hood portfolio rose 30,75 percent in the first year. And after the second year now, it is up 40,15%. It means that Robin Hood beats almost all of the funds operating on the US stock market in the world. Is Robin Hood business, art, or a bold philosophical experiment? It fits all of those contexts.
Akseli: That is quite beautifully put. I would add that Robin Hood is also an economic experiment. I would like to emphasize this, the economic side of Robin Hood, because it is from here that the so called “economic experts” are trying to dismiss us. This is what the priests repeat: you philosophers and artists and temporary workers, you have no access here, to the temple, you don’t understand, you cannot come here, you cannot touch this, you must let us deal with this. The funniest thing of course is, that Robin Hood has been able to create something that this clergy will not understand. This is also our best protection.
Pekka: Does it mean that Robin Hood is trying to beat the enemy by joining with it?
Akseli: We don’t in fact join the financial capital, we use it and appropriate it, like a parasite – unless you can think that a parasite joins its host. We are trying to find a way forward from the financialization of economy. There is no return from there, our money is already there. There are no financial virgins. As soon as your money hits your account, the banks start to use it for expanding credit. And more importantly, our individual and collective capability to assume debt and pay taxes is the main raw material for accumulation of financial assets at the moment. The size of the derivative market has in the past 30 years grown to become over 20 times bigger than entire world Gross National Product. And at the same time the number of banks has decreased by 40%. Only nine big investment banks actually control almost the entire derivative market. This has nothing to do with free competition or “may be best win”. During the first 3 months of 2013 alone, I repeat, the first 3 months alone, the net earnings of Goldman Sachs was over 2,26 billion dollars (Q1 in 2014 2,02B$), HSBC 6,35 billion dollars (Q1 in 2014 5,1B$), JP Morgan 6,53 billion dollars (Q1 in 2014 5,3B$)…. It is quite a lucrative business. And our money, for example the retirement money, is already there too. We just never see the profits. We just carry the risks. Our individual and collective capability to assume debt and pay taxes is used directly for making these profits.
Bending the financialization of economy into the advantage of precarious workers. Transforming the private profits into shared resources. Creating a relation with money which works as a means of freedom, escape, and increase of independence. Profanating finance, returning its space to common use and play. Appropriating the power of money as capital. This is our business. And our strategy is ingenious. Like Serres’ parasites we hook to the brains of the financial elite at Wall Street, and they don’t even know it. We appropriate the most important knowledge and capabilities of financial capital and its representatives and put them to work for us – just like capital normally puts to work our abilities and knowledge for the increase of its own value. This is minor asset management. Another way to occupy Wall Street
Pekka: You have now moved to California? What is happening?
Akseli: Yes, we are currently setting up the American Robin Hood in Silicon Valley. We are about to begin the next phase of Robin Hood, an IPO via issuing a crypto equity and development of an army of parasites.
1) The soft belly – il ventre molle – of Infosphere is a concept by Franco Berardi. He developed it to think about the place of insurrection and mutation when controls have become arbitrary and started to operate through linguistic and technological automatisms which predispose our aptitudes, tendencies and positions at a dividual level. It is no use to rebel or demonstrate against them, it means nothing to their functionality. Yet their weak spot is in the softness or unpredictability of social sensibility and unconsciousness. It is their “soft belly”.