A Ponzi scheme is a kind of investment which pays earlier investors with funds from later investors. Each is promised high returns on their initial payment, but those returns are only made possible if further investors are brought into the community.
At its heart, the Ponzi scheme is a sociable contract built around a utopia. As with any financial arrangement, investors agree to enter into a shared, speculative reality, but a Ponzi scheme is evasive about the asymmetric nature of the risks at play. It believes in people and profits, but not at the same time.
We may consider three ways in which a Ponzi scheme resolves. First, it may resolve catastrophically, with the initiator absconding with the investments, revealing the true nature of the game. While the traditional Ponzi “robs Peter to pay Paul”, by the end all of the apostles are empty-handed.
Second, the Ponzi scheme may resolve infinitely. In the example above, the speculative financial reality sustained by a steady flow of new investments will eventually reach a hard limit. However, in this resolution, a limit may never arrive. This is suggested by the Ponzi-like structure of the stock market as a whole: the S&P 500 index has risen 8.6% per year for the past four decades. Even with the conditions of the climate catastrophe, the basic premise of neoliberal environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy is that the “green” agenda will uphold the status quo, growth.
Third, a Ponzi scheme may resolve poetically, by fulfilling the requirements of its initiator and all the investors alike. This is the trickiest of resolutions, acknowledging a Ponzi scheme as temporal play in which the game – the form of value exchange in question – is partially or fully opaque. Each participant belongs to a heterogenous system of value, for which the Ponzi serves as a temporary or quasi-space of relation and co-ordination. Such an exchange might take place between a banker and a numismatist, a doctor and a martyr, a bureaucrat and a fetishist, the pure and the debased. In this delightful resolution, far from its avaricious reputation, the Ponzi scheme is a generously and generatively expansive economic machine for producing simultaneous ends and means, in perpetuity.