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Confronting Financialization Demands a Radical Cultural Politics

An excerpt from Cultures of Financialization

The following is a synoptic excerpt from the conclusion of Max Haiven’s Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life, published in 2014 for Palgrave Macmillan and recently issued in paperback.

Rather than (or in addition to) castigating finance as purely the realm of capitalist excess, greed, cruelty and extortion, we may also need to see finance, and the broader processes of financialization, as both symptomatic and revelatory of some deeper, more profound and potent truths about our society. Financialization is, in my reading, an intertwined economic, political, sociological and cultural process of transformation whereby the ideas, codes, measurements, metrics, metaphors and power structures of finance come to dominate and recalibrate all manner of institutions, social processes and cultural norms. But while we should approach financialization as not only a prime and key weapon of capitalist power, one I have likened to a kind of totalitarianism, we should also be attentive to the way it carries, encrypted within it, the seeds of other potentialities.

In fact, the economic and social precariousness that neoliberal financialization causes, and on which it relies, may be a perverse and skewed reflection of a much deeper, ontological field of possibility. As Randy Martin explains, finance is, elementally, the monetized quantification of future uncertainty, measured through the evaluation of risks and the translation of those risks into discrete and highly fungible financial objects. I argue that these objects both measure and transform social life, rendering social reality and labour power highly “liquid,” calibrated to the whims of a form of capitalism that thrives on volatility. I want to frame finance, in part, as one particularly ugly means of contending with the onto-sociological fact of shared precariousness. We all share some degree of existential precariousness at our core, and various systems of power and government are sustained to the extent that they reassure us otherwise. In a more Marxian phrasing, we might say that humans, as an inherently cooperative species, are ontologically dependent on one another, precarious in that we rely on social bonds (between humans and with other more-than-humans actors — eg. other animals, natural systems, the land) to ensure our reproduction: this is our “species being.”

Systems of power and exploitation reproduce themselves by organizing our shared precarious, cooperative onto-sociality, supplying also the illusions, narratives, ranks, hierarchies and social codes which link economic value (the order of material production and distribution) to social values. Within such a framework, contemporary finance is not only a means of commanding, disciplining and coordinating labour on a global scale; it is also a syntax or structure for our shared stories about value and about social life. Financialization, in part, names an épistème, a common method for arriving at shared truths, which is both reproduced by the reigning socio-economic paradigm (financialized neoliberal capitalism), while it reproduces that paradigm and the subjects germane to it.

For this reason I set out to revisit Marx’s notion of fictitious capital to complicate the way we understand the socio-economic importance of narrative, and to suggest that we must understand financialization both as a highly material process by which capitalism reproduces itself at the expense of workers and the environment and also as a means of comprehending, measuring and imagining the social world.

We may be able to read into today’s financialized experience of increased precariousness not merely the abjection of debt and the existential agonies of compulsory economic uncertainty, but also the resonances of a deeper power. We might say that the Keynesian moment of post-war capitalism survived (at least in part) by affording (to some — mostly male and white) the illusion that security, prosperity, creativity, individuality and peace could be achieved within the capitalist paradigm. But the new, unapologetic, ruthless modality of financialized austerity capitalism, which emerged as a capitalist form of vengeance against the economic and social crises of Keynesianism, offers no such guarantees. Individuals are permitted and exhorted to leverage their way out of precarity or, perhaps more accurately, rent, for a time, a reprieve from financialized existential uncertainty.

I am not only suggesting that the ideological niceties of the welfare state have fallen away, allowing individuals and communities to more readily observe their economic exploitation. I am also suggesting that conditions of universal precariousness without illusions is a material basis for seeing the much deeper and more raw power at the core of all economic and political systems: the inherent creative and cooperative force of our “species being,” our shared precarious inter-reliance.

In a world where we all owe, and where our owing has become a key means by which our labour (cooperative energies) is shaped, constrained, harnessed and disciplined, our politics cannot be limited to demanding the erasure of debt. While the abolition of financialized exploitation is necessary, it would not be enough to imagine a “return” to a mythical “debt-free” moment of capitalism. Instead, we should approach debts as the fortitude and potential of the social bonds that surround us, not only in terms of our monetary obligations, but also in terms of those relationships of mutual dependence that make our reproduction possible. As David Graeber has offered, all societies reproduce themselves, and their power relations, through debt, though not in the same ways. How can we emerge from our moment of financialized capitalism, where debt is torqued into a means to reproduce monumental injustices, through the cultivation of a different notion of social bonds that, instead, reproduce egalitarian, ecological and liberating modes of cooperation? In Martin’s terms, this is a process of discovering the way financialization has transformed the territory of politics, depositing us in “an unknown country that we nonetheless call home.” (79)

The securing financialization: Walmart

To explore this I turned to the counter-intuitive example of Walmart, the world’s largest retail corporation and private employer. Walmart’s cultural and material politics rely on a logic of securitization. This term binds together, on the one hand, the way in which all aspects of life can increasingly be understood as financial assets and risks to be managed and, on the other, the increased militarization, surveillance, and policing germane to a high-risk financialized society. Walmart succeeds not only because it ruthlessly mobilizes speculative and security logics to perfect its global operations, but because it offers to its customers and workers the illusion of security in a precarious world.

Movements to counter Walmart’s power will be successful to the extent that they go beyond challenging the firm’s worst excesses or beyond even the establishment of trade unions or new government regulations around labour or environmental rights, as important as these struggles may indeed be. Rather, the deepest value of such movements (beyond the very real and important material gains they can win) is their capacity to reject the financialized paradigm of securitization that Walmart articulates and instantiates so acutely.

Like the similar Fast Food workers’ movements in the United States currently, the anti-austerity protests in Europe and the Occupy Movement, these struggles are animated by both concrete demands for different policies and also by the desire to create spaces within which to reimagine society and security more broadly. The Walmart workers’ relatively modest demands contain, encrypted within them, a utopian kernel, one that expresses a radically different idea of security. This would be a form of security animated by a political imagination beyond a “return” to the post-war compromise that never was but instead attached, to that aforementioned deeper, more profound notion of interdependent, precarious species being.

Walmart is to be found wanting not merely because it is one of the most effective and efficient vectors of financialized capitalist exploitation, but because it denies both its workers and its customers the opportunity to cooperate in other, more peaceful ways. The security it offers effectively secures the volatile and violent reproduction of capital, not the reproduction of autonomy. Yet, conversely, in the off-gassing material bounty that is a Walmart store, perhaps we can also catch a glimpse of the fecund cooperative potential of our species being: to what ends could this power be put were it not harnessed to an empire of debt and securitization, an empire for which Walmart is the flagship?

Value, labour and financialization

Financialization, then, refers not only to an economic process, but also to a cultural one. Or, more properly, it emblematizes what Fredric Jameson has called the “becoming cultural of the economic and the becoming economic of the cultural.” For this reason I have turned to a fraught term wedged unhappily between these two nebulous fields: value. The term’s potential and peril lies in its capacity to articulate both the idea of social values (those codes, ideas, hierarchies, beliefs and senses of worth that ground subjects and societies) and the notion of economic price. Massimo de Angelis and David Graeber have sought to understand capitalism as a system based on the subordination of social values to economic value. Social life, for these authors, is driven by human cooperation (species being) that is coordinated through a dialectic of value: on the one hand, values shape the social actions of individuals and groups that reproduce society and its individuals; on the other, the actions of individuals and groups help reproduce values, reinforcing or undermining established notions of worth, propriety, rank, station or decorum.

Importantly, none of these authors see capitalism as merely reducible to the sum of individual actions: a ruling class continues to exist, and they still represent the prime beneficiaries and agents of the system. However, these authors’ approaches help us highlight and contextualize the way financialized capitalism is also rooted in the cultural processes of daily life as never before. If capitalism is elementally a viral or cancerous logic that measures and subjugates the play of social values to the austere logic of economic value, then culture (being the name we give to the endless and limitless negotiation of social values and meanings) is not merely the superstructural ephemera of a “real” economic base. Such a perspective does not lose sight of the realities of economic exploitation, nor does it allow us to imagine that the negotiation of values is somehow an autonomous field of activity driven by some mythological concept of “agency” or “resistance.” Instead, offers a method for mapping relations of political economy and cultural power with a primary and abiding focus on the composition and recomposition of power and refusal.

Liquefying play

Financialization, then, can name the overarching process by which the massive neoliberal wave of value enclosure is facilitated, comprehended and measured. I use the notion of “liquidity” to speak to the way the financial sector both advances and measures the liquidation of society into marketable commodities (tangible and intangible), or, in other terms, the depth and extent to which all social institutions, forms, spaces and processes — spheres of social value — are re-encoded, disciplined and measured by economic value. The contemporary financial realm is both a reflection and a motor of the seepage of neoliberal capitalism into almost all spheres of social life.

Hence my desire to find the traces of such a process where we are least likely to expect it, such as the fertile, imaginative and complicated world of children’s play. We can examine young people’s engagement with Pokémon trading cards as an example of a financialized social practice wherein kids “learn to learn” the dispositions, subjectivities and practices germane to a financialized society. While Pokémon cards are highly engineered commodities, whose meanings and value are reinforced by an intertextual set of commercialized referents (TV shows, comic books, video games, etc.), young Pokémon players retain a degree of freedom, creativity, autonomy and agency.

Yet just as Walmart is a particularly acute and demonstrative articulation of the broader cultural paradigm of financialization, so, too, are Pokémon cards. It is not so much that Pokémon cards fail as a financialized commodity because they leave too much space open for children’s autonomy. It’s that they rely on this space of autonomy, play, agency and creativity to succeed where other, more didactic or directive products fail. This tells us a great deal about the complexities and nuances of cultural politics under financialization. While neoliberal financialization may, ultimately, be characterized by the pathological and limitless collapsing of all social values into and under the ruthless quantitative measure of economic value, it is also, contradictorily, dependent on the forms of innovation, social reproduction and subjectivity generated in the intervals.

The financialization of creativity

For this reason I link the rise of financialization since roughly the early 1970s to the concurrent rise in popularity of discourses of “creativity,” a notion that has, bound up within it, aspirations for individuality, imagination, freedom, possibility, autonomy and (existential) prosperity. We can see multiple moments of correspondence and dialectical reinforcement and contradiction between the idea of creativity and the processes of financialization. For instance, Bill Gates’ efforts to use the language of “creative capitalism” to rebrand the system as a way to facilitate its expansion into realms that were, hitherto, relatively autonomous, notably K-12 education and philanthropy. While neither sector has ever been free of capital’s influence, at one time (perhaps most acutely in the Keynesian period) they were held to be guided largely by non-market values. The discourse of creativity here, as mobilized by Gates, allowed a financialized logic to recode these spheres in the image of the market.

That the idea of creativity, when articulated in Schumpeter’s language of “creative destruction,” has provided a key point of discursive leverage that has enabled a new moment of unapologetic, expanded, globalized and digitized financialization, one when the most caustic and pathological excesses of the financial sector can be justified by virtue of their ability to drive market innovation and renewal. Likewise, the idea and ideals of creativity have been discursively significant to the establishment and expansion of the precarious economy, wherein we are each expected to embrace and leverage our inner creativity to improve our human capital and securitize our individuated futures. Here the (romanticized) image of the creative genius, the artist, is held up as the paragon of success and acumen in the financialized economy.

Financialization represents a key means by which capital can expand its discipline and measure into various realms of social life and extract value (ideally) without damaging or corrupting the creative, semi- autonomous ecosystems that generate value in the first place. With reference to the relationship of speculative real estate and the gentrification and enclosure of “creative” urban neighborhoods, financialization represents a high level of refinement, decentralization and sophistication in the methods by which capital captures, harnesses, reorients and shapes the creation of value and values in social life, transforming social reproduction in ways that ultimately reinforce and reproduce capital and social liquidation.

Though a fraught, tired cliché, the idea of creativity functions so effectively precisely because it is made to hold the place for all those capacities and powers that are otherwise denied, constrained, enclosed or exploited under neoliberal financialized capitalism: autonomy, agency, freedom, meaningful individuality, imagination and cooperation. As with a politics to counter financialization, a politics of creativity cannot solely be based on critique and deconstruction but must, instead or in addition, seek to show that the real, serious needs and desires encrypted within words like “creativity” cannot be met within the current economic and political structures. Rather, they can only be realized in a very different society and by radically different subjects.

The financialization of resistance and the resistance of financialization

In the name of this society and these subjects I want to take up the question of resistance to finance in three somewhat counter-intuitive registers. First, finance has always relied on resistance to secure its own reproduction. State regulation (from securities commissions to central banks to redistributive taxation) emerged as a set of brokered compromises whereby governments sought to alleviate or displace the systemic contradictions of financialized accumulation to prevent financial crises or social uprisings. In other words, finance would destroy the economy (and planet) without some measure of mediated resistance, so we need to be careful about posing “resistance” as-such to triumphantly.

Second, there may be much to be gained in the thought-experiment of imagining working-class and subaltern engagements with finance (and debt) as forms of resistance. Borrowing (especially without a hope of repaying) can become a (perhaps pyrrhic and flawed) means to reclaim a share of social wealth otherwise enclosed by capital, whether in the form of government or individual debts. While this form of “resistance” is not necessarily advisable or laudable (at least in isolation of organized movements), such a counterintuitive approach helps reveal the way that finance shapes and harnesses agency, resistance and hope.

Finally, resistance, at least as a normative good in and of itself, is largely futile (a lesson we should certainly recall in the age of Trump and the self-serving “resistance” of unseated neoliberals). If finance depends on resistance and is, in some way, articulated as a form of resistance, we need to look beyond the term and the idea(l) for real answers to the crisis of financialized capitalism. Resistance, in this formulation, is an non-dialectical, idealistic term which simply obscures capitalism’s contradictions in a feel-good phrase with no capacity to illuminate, let alone motivate, the forms of agency and action we would actually need to move beyond the foreclosed future of finance’s endless reproduction.

As I have argued elsewhere, we should see the rise of “new” xenophobic and racist authoritarianisms as a continuation of, rather than an exception to, the logic of financialization and the order of hopeless indebtedness and ceaseless, abusive uncertainty it coheres. It is not an accident that so many of the leading protagonists of this shift are themselves financiers or rentiers who brag that their mastery of risk equips them to lead a polity of risk-managers. Nor is it an accident that they succeed by mobilizing fear and loathing towards the those labelled “at risk” who are presented as parasites and cheats, responsible for the distortions in what is assumed to be an otherwise rational and just financialized market system.

In order to counter both the suave and genteel “globalist” face of financialization and the sneering, virtriolic (white) “nationalist” side (both of which, it seems, are equally staffed by Goldman Sachs executives) we will need a radical vision that goes beyond a return to a post-war moment that never-was.

Whither the critique of financialization?

And here we arrive at the question of what research and writing on financialization is actually for. Much of the scholarship in the social study of finance has done the invaluable work of illuminating the nuances and complexities of how the financial services industry works, revealing that, at the heart of a sector that prides itself on the surgical and scientific management of risk and the dispassionate, distanced and objective manipulation of abstract economic objects, the unruly mess of culture is at work. Whether sociological studies of financial instruments and processes anthropological studies of financier culture, cultural and historical expositions of the norms and tropes that animate the financial imagination or political-economic studies of the operations of metaphor, narrative and gaming in the financial sector, this work has revealed the dense and crucial work of culture at the very heart of the global economy.

Yet is this enough? It seems to me that such analyzes typically take one of two approaches. One is to suggest that the problems of the otherwise functional and legitimate financial sector stem from being either too cultural (in the sense that financiers, at some level, make decisions based not on “objective” data but on subjective impressions) or not cultural enough (in the sense that financial actors ought to forgo the pretense of scientism and admit that they are guided, primarily, by convention and intuition). The actionable conclusions that stem from this approach usually boil down to the (palpable) need for better financial regulation and oversight to protect society from the sector’s excesses.

The second approach is much like the first: it suggests, with various degrees of outrage, that finance’s “cultural” dimensions render it unfit to wield the power and influence it today enjoys, and that, what is worse, the financial apparatus can essentially be reduced to an oligarchy of unfathomably wealthy individuals and institutions (served by functionaries), who adopt the accoutrements of economic rigor to cloak and justify the reproduction of their own power. The actionable conclusion from this approach is also largely regulatory: the need to bring finance to heel, to rearticulate its relationship to the “real economy” at some more equitable ratio, and to return capitalism to a functional equilibrium.

Both approaches are important. The regulation of the financial sector is woefully inadequate (or, more accurately, it facilitates financial accumulation at the expense of the public, the state and the rest of the capitalist economy), and the financial sector has become a law unto itself, the powers of which are socially, economically and ecologically devastating.

But what purpose do such studies serve? Obviously, these approaches seek to awaken policy-makers and the public to the grave threat and unaccountable power of the financial sector, a system that, contrary to its claims to drive innovation and wealth creation, works largely to reproduce and entrench its own power. But what agency do such revelations seek to mobilize? In whose name do they speak?

Without diminishing the importance of these interventions, I would suggest that they come, in some ways, too late. They speak to a set of dispositions and values associated with a Keynesian moment, when public outrage, scholarly umbrage and government scrutiny actually posed some sort of meaningful threat to capital.

Today, I fear such revelations have little traction: they do not resonate within the value paradigm of financialization, where almost any notion of the public has evaporated under the blistering heat of neoliberal individualization. To what government might we appeal for regulation, when seemingly every mainstream political party the world over has accepted the inevitability of financialized austerity? The public we might seek to mobilize may, today, be too fragmented by debt and too driven to distraction by the financialized imperative to securitize and manage risk to heed our warnings or imagine themselves as a collective “we.”

Rechanneling financialization’s false promises

Perhaps we can understand financialization as more than an aberration from a field of contestation we take to be more normal, natural or desirable. Such a proposition might begin by asking the question: What is it that fictitious capital ceaselessly promises, but endlessly defers?

Financialization promises that, if one prudently invests one’s human capital and embraces the right risks in the right ways, one will be rewarded with economic security, the absence of precariousness. Financialization is predicated, at least in part, on the promise of creativity, individuality, freedom, autonomy and community. Financialization has been ushered in as an individuated means to seek the accoutrements of a middle-class life: education, housing, meaningful work, health care, the resources for pleasure, and, in general, a sense of security.

These desires are not in and of themselves unworthy, indeed, they define our species being, but financialization cannot fulfil them, at least not for very many of us. Yet an approach that took seriously the cultural politics of financialization would not be satisfied with the assumption (stated outright or otherwise) that we would have a better chance of achieving these goals (as individuals or as a society) if we “returned” to some idealized Keynesianism-that-never-was.

Rather, what would a (cultural) politics look like that approached the desires that feed financialization? What sorts of new constituencies and collaborations would need to form to fulfill those desires otherwise? And how could writing and research about financialization not merely point to the “big lie” of the system, but show that such a system cannot fulfil those values it promises? How could we reveal that, behind the necromancy of financialization, there resides an incredible, creative constituent power, a species being, that is, today, rudely conscripted to the reproduction of its own exploitation? How could such work not merely bemoan the absence of a revolutionary financialized subject, but call that subject into being? If financialization represents a new set of relationships between what we once imagined to be the distinct fields of culture and economics, and if financialization and the politics germane to it are, to some extent, the product of the imagination, then scholars can no longer imagine themselves as detached outsiders.

You and I, dear reader, in our own ways, are reproducing fictitious capital. The question is: how can we do otherwise? Under what banner or standard might we reimagine our shared future? And what formation, if any, can actually challenge the massive power of financialization not only over governments and economics, but over everyday life, lived culture and the imagination itself? How can we not only tell different stories about value and about the future, but tell those stories in ways that can mobilize and sustain the constituent power necessary to overcome the system of fictitious capital, and the broader system of capitalist accumulation of which it is one important part?

 Max Haiven is Canada Research Chair in Culture, Media and Social Justice at Lakehead University in Northwest Ontario and director of the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL).

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