museum of capitalism large

New Constitutions: Institutions After Capitalism

Institutions of Capitalism

Opening this month in Oakland, the Museum of Capitalism is a conceptual conceit arranged in the form of a prefigurative institution. It’s central position is that of a museum looking back at the era of capitalism applying a “museological gaze” to document this disappearing age and the forms of resistance found within it.1 Even though the project is framed as a means to preserve a record of capitalism as it recedes, it is a museum that does not retell a particular past so much as foretell possible narratives forward. In the process, the museum is constructing an “archeology of the future,” a term Frederic Jameson adopts for the utopic impulse to imagine radical alternatives to the present.2 Conjoined to this is Jameson’s assertion that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.”3  The Museum of Capitalism, centrally, is an applied imperative to imagine the end of capitalism through the lens of an institution.

The museum itself is arranged as a durational exercise several years in the making with other as yet unannounced iterations to come. Situating itself between a singular, complex exhibition and a permanent institution allows the museum to slip among forms as it suggests possible institutional modes after capitalism. The first public initiatives of the museum evoked particular markers of institutions under capitalism, such as a widely circulated architectural competition – appropriate given that the dominant identity of many museums is the spectacle of their buildings themselves – followed by an artifact donation drive4 and a summit of the three museums of capitalism presently active.5

The Museum of Capitalism. Photo by Brea McAnally.

Organized around an open system of exhibitions, research, publications, the collection and preservation of art and artifacts related to capitalism, and other events and public initiatives, the museum resists strict definition, leaving it unclear whether its projected duration is the length of an exhibition or whether it is proposed as a more or less permanent institution. Does the Museum of Capitalism make its statement simply by enunciation, strengthened by the creation of a temporal institution with an iterable form, or could it survive into its speculative future as a primary site of the “eroding” evidence of capitalism for some post-date onlooker? The answer, of course, is both yes and no and a refusal to require an answer is itself central to its aura.

Like any good utopia, the Museum rests between an impossible present and a practicable future. In fact, it is a future that only arrives through practice. To slightly amend Robert C. Elliott’s assertions about art in science fiction, a utopia can be judged by the quality and position of the institutions it foretells. Institutions, in their specificity and particular positions towards art, publics, or ethics, gather the collectivities of possible worlds into shapes that may sustain them.6 The Museum of Capitalism does not need to succeed in representing alternatives, though it may do that as well; it must simply offer a renewed imperative to imagine post-capitalist practices. This “practicable alternative” is the urgent work of the institution – to create spaces in which one may reimagine an altered future, to create constellations of relations among artists, objects, and publics that resist commodity form, and to create forums of dissent, collaboration, and communing that too often feel equally necessary and non-existent.

Rather than place this burden on a single representative museum (a proposition that, as I’ll return to, is itself a contradiction for a post-capitalist institution), I am interested in opening the discussion to what an institution after capitalism consists of more broadly: What is its ethic? How is it formed? How specifically does it differ from those emergent within the era – our era – of capitalism? To arrive towards the future, we must first define the present with some brief sketches.

Institutions within Capitalism

To understand the idea of the institution after capitalism, it is imperative to acknowledge the failure of the institution within capitalism, as well as the ruptures and contours at work within capitalism itself. The idea of the institution within capitalism is something of a paradox. It is a form meant to strategically fail when stressed so that it can be unendingly replaced and reiterated as capitalism evolves. A history of capitalism has to account for its capacity to devour its kids and any twinned institution acting in accord with capitalism tends to disaggregate if not outright disappear in subsequent phases of its development. As J.K Gibson-Graham makes clear, capitalism “constitutes us” – patterning our institutional practices in its own image, dictating terms of development, and presenting us with the mirage that it encompasses all alternatives.7 The institution within capitalism is always secondary to the demands of capitalism itself, predetermining its endpoint unless resistant structures are considered and constituted from the outset.

After Ferdinand Waldemüller: The Harvest (1847). Lithograph on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches (1887). Palouse Regional Studies Collection.

The emergence of capitalism as we understand it is intertwined with the Protestant Reformation, a kind of predestination oriented towards ending history, as all religions tend to do. The precursor to Marx’s infamous “specter haunting Europe,” this spirit started working out its salvation in the open, splintering history with what came to be known as the Protestant Work Ethic, the Spirit of Capitalism.8 This new economic actor, the Protestant, needed confirmation of his path and found it in simultaneous austerity and accumulation – two approaches that have persisted in subsequent phases. This ethic was initially embodied through a complex set of values: a sense of calling towards one’s work that encouraged over-labor alongside an attendant belief that material gains were physical manifestations of one’s faith, all undercut with a disdain for waste as decadent, charity as enabling of laziness, and most outward expressions of wealth as idolatrous. Capitalism quickly remade the Reformation over, secularizing its spirit and reconstructing it into an amoral ethic of expansion, excess, and austerity.

Looking back over the past several centuries of accelerated re-articulations of capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello hypothesize a series of ‘spirits’ successively from the reformer to the industrialist to the bureaucrat and, finally, to the artist and infinitely flexible auteur.9 We find in this final form a culmination of style. Destabilized, disrupted-disruptive, precarious laborers who nonetheless produce endless wealth (for the abstraction of the “market” rather than themselves) and who, like the Protestants, create based on a sense of calling and a tendency towards over-labor. Now, though, the market is the only afterlife to be achieved and the ethic is entirely unclear. Capitalism has constituted us and we no longer imagine an end outside of its institutions. The spirit of capitalism turned out to be an appropriate image: an immaterial, infinite entity negotiating its salvation through imprecise instruments.

The trickle down of capitalism into our era’s art institutions is easy enough to find in the precise point in which expansion meets austerity: Where the new $422 million Whitney Museum of American Art towers over the Meatpacking District as artists mount protests for even meagre stipends to support their work. Where the Met expands into the Whitney’s old Breuer building only to find itself “broke” and director and/or direction-less, a public museum needing to pass on its debts to attendees. Where the MOCA LA has record crowds yet barely escapes bankruptcy.10 Where the museum building boom continues unabated while the NEA enters shutdown procedures. This is capitalism’s new institutional ethic: exploit any advantage, move up, move in, pass on costs, privatize, expand your space and lay off staff. Project austerity, demand it, while concentrating resources under cover, all under the auspices of increased competition from other institutions and imported ideas of efficiency.

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building and the end of the (High) Line pictured as they would like to be seen. Image courtesy of the Whitney.

Placing two superficially opposing modes of organization in parallel, we can see the groundwater that feeds our widescreen art world remains the same no matter the scale. Take first the proliferation of the private museum as one of the fastest-growing sectors of institutional expansion. Based on obscene individual wealth and a celebration of individual taste as consumptive spectacle, we’ve begun to reach a kind of zenith of this form through the Broad in Los Angeles, which looms above its neighboring museums and whose line continuously wraps around the building, often hours in length to even enter the building. The Broad manifests a museology of capitalism instituting its founders name and taste as form. An old trick, yes, but one that seems to really work, no? Individual wealth, which once typically made it back to the older model capitalist construction of the “public” museum in the form of donations and honorary acquisitions has instead increasingly collected into singular pools. That massive crowds line up eagerly either way is simply a symptom. These spaces aren’t wrong about their world; they are perhaps its apotheosis, the end of a line.

The distant kin of the private museum, radically altered in appearance though still caught under comparable logic, is the precarious independent or alternative space petitioning for its place within the same art world. These spaces live in the margins as a minor league that deny their minor status in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, instead serving as testing ground for capitalist subsumption.11 This is explicitly the defense commonly offered as an expression of their value: they take the risks on new artists and ideas that lead to later sales in commercial spaces and acquisitions for museum collections. This early-stage investment, the argument goes, is why these spaces deserve support rather than any value immediately immanent within their work itself, much less for the very fact that they offer a space of possible opposition or collectivity outside of capitalist logic. To follow this argument to its end is to say that its function is fully dependent on capitalist metrics of success, just slightly deferred and with significant risk – to find oneself, finally, in the Whitney or at least a spirit appearing on a High Line billboard visible from its cantilevered balconies.

The value given or taken may be variable in kind or even degree, but its success is still individual, unable to de-emphasize its individual acclaim in favor of a far-reaching collectivity. This, at core, is what makes an institution essentially capitalist no matter the scale or experimental veneer it embodies otherwise. Quoting @fucktheory, the failure of institutions under capitalism can be summed up succinctly through their desire to establish “value through individuation.” Continuing from FT’s Twitter thread, we could say that the capitalist institution carries a “pathological inability to de-emphasize the individual in the interest of collective benefit.”12 At present, we can clearly diagnose that the apparatus aimed towards social good (“the institution”), which is purportedly organized in some way outside of the logic of profit (“the non-profit” or “alternative space”), continues to operate within the logic of competition and individuation, claiming some corner of the market and aggressively marketing its competitive advantage. This is the institution acting in parallel to Boltanski and Chiapello’s precarious, flexible laborer. Given a landscape of perpetual precarity, the institution goes rogue as a free agent attempting to undercut the competition by offering a more efficient product, poaching funders and competing for attention in an oversaturated market.

This is not to say that this is the only form the non-profit or independent institution takes today, simply to clarify our terms in order to strike distinctions between an essentially capitalist and an anti- or post-capitalist practice. We are in an era of hybrids – contingent spaces operating contradictorily on multiple levels at once. To be contingent is not the same as being compromised and we must refuse the assertion that any capitalist activity leads us back to the infinite mirrors of capitalism.  A space may exist as capitalist in one sphere, and trespass those borders in another. Autonomy is a mirage under a capitalist system and interdependence among multiple modes is a necessary part of institutional (and individual) existence. However, any institution that opposes capitalism’s logic by advocating and installing commoning, collectivity and mutual support within its active structures and granular practices precedes the era of post-capitalism that is our horizon here, prefiguring it and offering some path out. This is a practice that, again, does not necessarily represent radical alternatives in all spheres of activity, but offers an imperative and, importantly, a means of imagining them. The foothold requires other rungs to become a ladder but even one step gets us off the ground.

Institutions After Capitalism

We find it easy to sequester art institutions and artistic practice as a whole as subject to the whims of the political, whatever its manifestation, without acknowledging its potential radical ruptures. It is clear that categorical shifts in the political domain have direct implications on artistic institutions in particular, as seen most immediately in the Trump administration’s dismantling of the NEA or Putin’s direct suppression of artistic dissent through state coercion, among a multitude of other examples currently being enacted. Artistic practice is likewise no substitute political practice but the important point here is that it also should not be dismissed as a potential opening into a prefigurative practice of institution building.  

Tania Bruguera banner, The Time Has Come For Us To Take Our Institutions, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Image by the author.

In the shaping of an institution, we are inscribing a kind of world we wish to inhabit. Without larger shifts, this world is always contingent, yet it is also concrete. It is a space and system in which post-capitalism makes itself immanent; it flashes into the present within an exhibition or collaboration, in the ways decisions are made and how dissent is engaged, the forms in which ideas are dispersed or how a public is gathered in space. All this gathers into how a museum or alternative space is formed from the ground up, a concept made manifest into an institution.

Given our definitions, post-capitalist institutions cannot be considered as singular entities, but require, in Gerald Raunig’s terms, an “institutent” or “constituent” practice that forms around their work eroding borders between institutions as distillations of individual efforts. Following Raunig, “if instituent practice can be understood as a process…then it is the event of instituting in which it is predecided how cooperation, collectivity and participation develop.”13

In other words, processes such as cooperation, collectivity, and participation, along with an unending list of daily practices towards commoning are an alternate set of ethics that must be part of the organizing impulse of the institution from the outset and emerge as the result of premeditated decisions. Foundationally, we must first acknowledge that our modes of instituting dictate the end position of the institution. If capitalist practices are the default under the regime of the present, then concrete dispositions must be considered, constructed, constituted and practiced towards other ends.

A position towards the present is a protest ethic – to be post-capitalist, one must practice anti-capitalism, imagining new institutions in which new habits are formed.14 Perhaps the Protestants weren’t so far off in their insistence of not being reformed, but “always reforming.”15 Reformation as an active practice wasn’t itself the source of capitalism – that was other interrelated impulses – but this pre-capitalist position may point to one way out. Writing in related territories, Antonio Negri surmises that ”only life in a constant state of renewal can form a constitution.” As a prefix, con indicates an institution is acting “together” or “with” another in order to enact new forms in common. Like Raunig, the con of Negri’s constitution announces a collectivity from the outset. This is the new constitution that is our horizon here.

What would this ethic consist of? How do we work differently within institutions? How do institutions work differently? How do we not embody austerity, but joy? How do we not replicate (self-) exploitation but create spaces of care? How do we reject expansion and accumulation in favor of commonwealth and generosity? How do we not defer utopia as an uncertain salvation, but inscribe it into our present, even in part, even if contingent, even if short-lived?

Can we propose a new constitution of sustainable, but unstable institutions? Spaces that deny individuation of attention and concentration of resources towards considerations of the collective. Situations that shed the borders of the institution and act in multiple at any moment. Can this ethic be instituted or, as we insist – constituted – within a succession of spaces, networks, and other constellations among artists? Our utopia insists upon it. This is the work of the institution today: to put into practice a new ethic of an emergent and unnamed after to capitalism and to hold it in common with one another.


This is the first in a series of texts by the author entitled New Constitutions considering ways in which institutional practices prefigure other forms of organization towards the commons. This was written on the occasion of the opening of the Museum of Capitalism and was accompanied by a discussion with the museum’s founders, Fictilis, as well as Anti Lab, Art for a Democratic Society, and Related Tactics.

  1.  From the Museum of Capitalism’s “about” statement on their website: (accessed June 2017)
  2.  Frederic Jameson, “Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions” (Verso Books, 2005)
  3. Ibid, p 416
  4.  Editor’s note: The Artifact Donation Drive was organized as part of this publication’s anthology and exhibition, Document V, at The Luminary in March, 2016.
  5.  The summit, held on March 11, 2017 in Berlin, included other museums of capitalism such as Museum des Kapitalismus in Berlin and Musée du C/Kapitalisme in Brussels
  6.   Robert C. Elliott, The Shape of Utopia (University of Chicago Press, 1970)
  7.  J.K. Gibson Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), (University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
  8.   Max Weber’s formative text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1905 set up, in his words, a “conceptual definition” of capitalism peculiar link to Protestantism.
  9.  Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso Books, 2007)
  10.  This statement is little more than shorthand for an astounding series of expansions, deficits, layoffs and austerity measures at museums throughout the US. As New York Magazine reported in “What Broke The Met”, “The Met shed around 90 staff members (in 2016), but MoMA also offered buyouts in the midst of an expansion — and just after receiving a $100 million gift. The Brooklyn Museum cut staff in response to rising costs. Out West, the LACMA had its own overleveraged expansion, and L.A.’s MoCA was still emerging from the brink of bankruptcy.” (New York Magazine, April 2017)
  11.  As Stevphen Shukaitis states in relation to his imprint, Minor Compositions,  “The notion of the minor figures broadly in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, underpinning an approach to politics not based on attempting to seize and control apparatuses of power, but working beneath and below them.”
  12.  All quotes come from @fucktheory’s Twitter thread from 1/15/17. The account is suspended as of 6/26/17.
  13.  Gerald Raunig, “Instituting and Distributing: On the Relationship Between Politics and Police Following Rancière as a Development of the Problem of Distribution with Deleuze”
  14. A complete consideration of the protest work ethic and alternate imaginaries of the institution will follow in this series of texts.
  15.  Some form of the phrase “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” dates back at least to Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674, though it allegedly dates to St. Augustine centuries before.

There are no comments

Add yours