Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life
By Max Haiven
Published by Palgrave MacMillan in October of 2014. Paperback forthcoming 2017.
Order here: http://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137355966
NOW OUT (2016): A Turkish translation has been published by Koç University Press (Koç Üniversitesi Yayınları) under the title Hayali Sermaye: Popüler Kültürde ve Gündelik Yaşamda Finansallaşma. For more information, visit: http://press.ku.edu.tr/tr/kitap/hayali-sermaye
A frustrated note regarding the exorbitant pricing: Unfortunately, my publisher Palgrave Macmillan sets the price and I have no control over it. They wish to see if a sufficient number of cloth copies sell before committing to a paperback run. The irony of publishing a prohibitively expensive critique of capitalist financialization is not at all lost on me. If you’d like to read it, please consider requesting your library order a copy. Or, if you might possibly be interested in writing a book review at some point in the future, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I can send you a digital copy.
UPDATE: Palgrave MacMillan has opted to publish a paperback run at a humane price in 2017. Stay tuned for more information.
Financialization not only refers to the incredible power of the financial sector over economics and politics. It also refers to the creep of financial ideas, metaphors, narratives and measurements throughout society and culture more broadly. Examining a wide range of examples and case studies, this book argues that, at the same time as popular culture and everyday life are increasingly saturated by a financial idiom, the financial sector as a whole is more deeply invested than ever in everyday life and culture writ large. From the security culture of Walmart to children’s play with Pokémon trading cards, from the hype around the “creative economy” to the economics of austerity and precariousness, this book seeks to reveal financialization at work where we might least expect to find it. In an age when seemingly imaginary financial assets determine the fates of whole economies, this book suggests we take the idea of “fictitious capital” seriously as a way to understand the power of finance, and what might be done to stop it.
Introduction: Cultures of Financialization
Financialization refers not merely the increasing economic power and influence of the financial sector, but also to the political, social and cultural dimensions of the rise of speculative capital in an age of globalization. Haiven argues that approaches to finance that see it as purely an imaginary realm of speculation do an injustice to the ways that financialization both preys and relies on the everyday dimensions of debt, credit and abstract monetary flows, and the ways these are stitched into the world of meaning, representation, ideology and the imagination. Offering an overview of the book to come, Haiven outlines a case for understanding financialization as driven by social practices and cultural politics.
1. The Reproduction of Fictitious Capital: The Social Fictions and Metaphoric Wealth of Financialization
Haiven takes up Karl Marx’s description of financial wealth as ‘fictitious capital,’ suggesting that finance is a social fiction whose reproduction and power depends on and drives the proliferation of social fictions throughout financialized societies. Haiven draws on research that argues for a more nuanced approach to the ‘cultural’ dimensions of financial speculation, as well as the effects of that speculation on ‘culture’ more broadly. He posits that, while financial assets may not be ‘real’ wealth, they play a central role in the reproduction of capitalism, and that they, in turn, transform the reproduction of social and cultural life. While ‘fictitious capital’ may be an important category, Haiven also offers the concept of ‘metaphoric wealth’ as a means to describe the interconnected and volatile nature of speculative value.
2. Precariousness: Two Spectres of the Financial Liquidation of Social Life
The rise of precarious (part-time, casualized, temporary) labour in the era of globalization (c.1990-present) cannot be separated from the ‘financialization’ of economic, political, social and cultural life. Haiven takes up two contrasting examples. On the one hand he points to the quintessential Wall Street trader as an iconic of the hollow ideal of success in a volatile world without guarantees, one who enthusiastically and ambitiously courts ‘risk’. This figure is contrasted to the abject ‘sub-prime’ borrower, seen as the victim and/or the cause of the 2008 financial meltdown, a subject not only rendered ‘at-risk’ by financialized neoliberalism, but whose risk itself becomes exploited as a target of speculated. Haiven argues that precariousness may be a common ground for solidarity and possibility beyond financialization.
3. Securitization: Walmart’s Financialized Empire
Walmart is the world’s largest private employer and retailer, but it is also at the cutting edge of merging financial techniques, corporate strategy, global trade and commercial culture into a devastatingly effective economic, social, political and cultural machine. Haiven argues that Walmart is a leader in mobilizing two interconnected forms of ‘securitization’: on the one hand the reimagining of everything from labour relations to marketing to supply chains as a form of ‘risk management’, on the other, the increasing mobilization of surveillance, security, military tactics and a culture of fear. Confronting Walmart’s power, Haiven suggests, requires acknowledging the way the firm addresses its legions of shoppers as astute financialized actors, and also reclaiming and transforming the meaning of ‘security’ itself.
4. Play: Coming of Age in the Speculative Pokéconomy
Traces of financialization—the intertwined economic, political social and cultural resonances of financial capitalism—can be found in children’s play. This demonstrates both the saturation of society with the ethos of speculative accumulation and the dependence of financialization on that saturation. Examining the case of children’s play with Pokémon cards (a globally popular collectable card game) Haiven argues that children use these artifacts to gain the skills, competencies and forms of subjectivity germane to a financialized society. He posits that Pokémon card play and trading allows children to develop skills in navigating a world of rapidly shifting, relational values, all within and as part of a broader paradigm of capitalist financialization.
5. Creativity: Parables of the Financialized Imagination
The growth in the popularity and salience of the discourse of creativity over the past forty years (and especially the past fifteen) cannot be separated from the rise of financialization and the power of speculative capital. Ideas of ‘creative capitalism’, ‘creative destruction,’ the ‘creative class’, ‘creative cities,’ and the economic potential of creativity are, Haiven argues, germane to an era dominated by financial speculation and the globalization of financial markets. Tracing this intertwined history through a variety of case studies, Haiven suggests that creativity’s euphemistic wooliness is its greatest asset in both explaining and enabling the sorts of neoliberal transformations of institutions and subjects that are part of financialization, from speculative urban property markets to a new breed corporate philanthropy, from the growth of precarious labour to the self-image of financiers.
6. Resistance (and its Discontents): Finance, Regulation, and Cultural Politics
With the financialization of the global economy, and the attendant rise in global volatility, debt, economic precarity and inequality, many have sought to imagine forms of resistance to and regulation of finance capital’s power. In response, Haiven makes three provocative arguments. First, he suggests that finance already relies on resistance, depending on the state and on popular resistance to regulate its otherwise renegade and reckless power. Second, he argues that we might do well to imagine the growth of debt (both that of individuals and of political entities) as a problematic form of resistance to the austere conditions of neoliberalism, an ironic reclamation of wealth. Finally, Haiven offers that resistance is already factored in to the financial sector’s operations, and as such a different vision of agency and change is required.
Conclusions: The Dialectics of Financialized Culture
Haiven argues that finance capital, while a massive and destructive force in economic, social, political and cultural life, also possesses the seeds of its own negation and its replacement. He notes the importance of reclaiming concepts like ‘security’, ‘debt’, ‘creativity’, ‘speculation’ and ‘play’ from financialization. He also argues that, in an age where the global economy is predicated on the reproduction of financialization at the level of culture and everyday life, the work of creating new meanings, relationships, subjects and forms of material and cultural power are more important than ever. Calling for a more militant tenor to the study of financialization, Haiven warns of speculative capital’s capacity to incorporate and digest critique and asks ‘what would a cultural politics look like that took seriously the desires that feed financialization?’
Excerpt (from the introduction):
This book is a contribution to efforts to retheorize financialization, a term which refers to the increased power of the financial sector in the economy, in politics, in social life and in culture writ large. More expansively, financialization connotes the way financial measurements, ideas, processes, techniques, metaphors, narratives, values and tropes migrate beyond the financial sector and transform other areas of society. Indeed, a key argument of this book is that the increased material power of finance is intimately linked to its increased influence in the realm of culture. I suggest that financialization, which is also a periodizing concept that refers to the massive changes in the architecture of the economy and its regulation since roughly 1973, may necessitate a re-evaluation of some of the key categories and tensions of both political-economy and cultural analysis.
Today, financial exchanges represent a massive proportion of the globe’s economic activity, especially in highly “developed” nations, where financial services have emerged as among the most “productive” sectors of the national economy. Yet the primary product and medium of this “industry” is immaterial, speculative and promissory: the manipulation of risk, probability, market differentials, insurance and, essentially, belief. While defenders of the sector might claim that all these digital financial ephemerae are merely the good-faith representations of real-world wealth, the truth is that financial assets are, in large part, imaginary. But imaginary, in my reading, does not mean unreal.
It is within the context of a massive global economic crisis driven by the collapse of the financial sector (and the subsequent politics of bailouts and austerity) that I believe the tools developed for the analysis of culture, ideology, fiction, imagination, social power and creative production can be brought to bear on finance and financialization with great effect. This is not a book about the workings of the financial sector as such, in terms of the operations of derivatives markets, the antics of investment bankers or the economic terrorism of deregulated global financial flows. This book is about the way the financial sector influences and transforms culture and social life beyond its formal borders, and, more unnervingly, the way it (and the broader capitalist order of which it is a part) depends on that very transformation.
We live in an age when student loans, mortgages (prime or sub-prime), consumer debt, credit cards and concerns about retirement investments (should we be fortunate enough to have them) preoccupy daily life as never before. It is an age when, for all intents and purposes, government debts and deficits have become the key and most important arbiters of government policy, not only at the level of nation-states but at the level of sub-state actors, including cities, public transportation firms, school boards, universities, hospitals and more. It is an age when financial markets essentially dictate corporate strategy, with the major firms that command the global economy beholden to the anonymous superego of “the shareholders” and their ruthless representatives (fund managers, bank executives, etc.). It is an age when the vast majority of the world’s most basic materials (oil, corn, wheat, rice, lumber, water) are traded dozens, perhaps scores, of times before they are ever consumed, thanks to the frenetic speculative trade in “commodities” futures and derivatives contracts; an age when the value of money has little to do with the economic vitality of the issuing nation but is, rather, determined by the vicissitudes of transnational currency exchanges. To this we can add the way that all these “assets” circulate in a globalized, interconnected digitized financial empire on which the sun never sets. Between the practices of high-frequency trading, inter-market arbitrage, the securitization of new synthetic financial assets out of the deconstructed fragments of others, and the internecine and corrupt entanglements of major investment banks, hedge funds and shadowy para-financial firms, it is no longer simple to trace any clear line between the financial imaginarium and the so-called “real economy.”
And yet finance’s influence is felt more acutely than ever. Not only does finance measure and profit by speculation on the fundamentals of economic life; it also helps shape and discipline the reality of production, circulation and economic life. Finance capital’s power over labour and commodities in an age of globalization is as dramatic as it is compulsive. Our lives and fates are increasingly in the grip of a system based on the ever more frantic, abstract and, indeed, imaginative competition between financial actors. As Michael Hudson (2012, ###) astutely notes, financialization essentially represents an unaccountable form of global economic planning, yet one with no broader goal save for the competitive maximization of profit. The result is a world cut to fit the financial imagination, whose benefits accrue largely to the most wealthy percentiles, and whose dramatic costs are endured by the majority of humanity. Within such a system, the most pressing and dangerous problems of our age, from deepening inequality to global warming and ecological collapse, from food crises to the AIDS epidemic, from fossil-fuel depletion to the conditions of globalized labour, can only be addressed in the financialized vernacular of the market, and only in ways that do not threaten the short-term profitability of the financial sector.
But, while authors like Chris Hedges (2009) may associate these facts with the emergence of an “empire of illusion,” I believe there is more to be gained by taking ideas like “imaginary wealth” and “fictitious capital” seriously. So, too, do I believe that, in contrast to insightful authors like Matt Taibbi (2010), Gerald Epstein (2006) and Joseph Stiglitz (2010), financialization is something more than the excesses of a deregulated cleptocracy; like Costas Lapavistas (1999; 2013), Ben Fine (2010; 2012), John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff (2009) and Greg Albo, Sam Ginden and Leo Panitch (2010), I see financialization and its current crises as symptomatic of and integral to the capitalist system of which it is a part. While I can appreciate the short-term merit in approaches that advocate the re-regulation of the financial sector, and that attempts to bring the speculative economy into greater alignment with the “real economy” (a distinction I shall shortly have cause to problematize), I am of the belief that any attempt to answer the challenges of financialization, both structurally and ethically, must be grounded in the necessity of the abolition of capitalism.
The method of this book is to trace the appearances of financialization in surprising places. Scholars including Brooke Harrington (2008), Randy Martin (2003), Paul Langley (2008), Rob Aitken (2007), Julia Ott (2011) and Louis Hyman (2011) have done the invaluable work of showing how investing, financial risk management and financial literacy have been sold to publics well beyond the financial sector, to such an extent that today, in an age of the neoliberal retreat of the welfare state and other modalities of collective insurance and wealth, we are all increasingly expected to understand ourselves as savvy financial actors, judiciously managing our material and immaterial assets in a world without guarantees. This book, by contrast, follows scholars like Martin (2003; 2007), Fredric Jameson (1997; 1998), Morgan Adamson (2012), Annie McClanahan (2012; 2013), Arjun Appadurai (2011; 2012a; 2012b), Joyce Goggin (2008; 2012) and others in seeking out the traces and resonances of financialization beyond the realm of banking, personal finance, economic discourse and other zones where we might expect to find it. I am interested in the rhizomatic and diffuse appearance of financial metaphors, practices, narratives, ideals, measurements, ideologies and identities throughout the social fabric and, conversely, the way financialization represents a new set of techniques and dispositifs (Foucault 1980, 194–228; see also Agamben 2009, 1–24) by which various elements of the social fabric are conscripted into an increasingly sophisticated order of capitalist accumulation.
Yet, I am not interested in rehearsing or belabouring the idea that financialization represents the caustic and unscrupulous top-down imposition of power and ideology on the innocent and passive field of everyday life and lived cultural practice. It may be true that the idea, propagated widely throughout the media landscape, that we are all “financiers” and “risk managers” obfuscates key class antagonisms and economic realities (notably, that the vast majority of us have no real assets to speak of, and the financial economy is being run by what can, without exaggeration, be characterized as a cabal of lawless oligarchs). But I also want to suggest that financialization represents a modality of social agency. In other words, I am interested in the way financialization transforms the way we understand ourselves as citizens, as subjects, as creative actors, as economic participants and as social beings. Financialization is not some dystopian monoculture imposed on us from above. Rather, it is a creative, conflicted, impure and agent-driven response to the material conditions of life under the rule of speculative, neoliberal capitalism. This does not make it right or good. But failing to attend to the ways financialization transforms subjectivity, identity, social practice and what I will call the shared fictions of social reproduction does a disservice to both the ingenuity of people and the sophistication of financialization’s power. I am not interested in redeeming financialization as some sort of “problematic” moment of freedom and possibility, as is the general practice in one of cultural studies’ idioms. The effects of such our financialized system, based as it is on the ubiquitous torture of debt, unapologetic corporate profiteering and the transformation of governments into facilitators of financial piracy, are ruining billions of lives and are contributing to the systematic destruction of the planet’s ecosystems. But I am suggesting that, if we are to understand and, hence, challenge and overcome financialization, we cannot treat it like some massive brainwashing campaign orchestrated from the bowels of Goldman Sachs’ Manhattan office tower.
Perhaps the most terrifying feature of financialization is that there is no one steering the ship; there is no grand conspiracy, though its operations do depend on lesser conspiracies. Rather, I want to understand financialization as a means by which social agency (at both the highest echelons of the financial world and the lowest depths of the sub-prime) is transformed and reoriented towards the reproduction of a pathological and cancerous system.
As worthy as such attempts might be, financialization is not a discrete process to be systematically studied. Rather, it must be traced by its manifestations throughout social and cultural life. As such, this book is less a linear argument and more a series of windows or lenses for approaching a common set of problems and phenomena. As such, each chapter presents a different theoretical approach and/or case study of the larger process, though they are threaded together by a certain methodology. In each, I seek to identify a key cultural and discursive component, demonstrate the way that financialization depends on and transforms it, and see whether some more radical and dialectical meaning might be rendered from it. That is, this book is a series of attempts to reclaim metaphor, narrative, ideology and imagination from financialization and turn them towards its undoing. Put in another way, this is a book about how financialization both transforms and depends on the production of social fictions (hence, as we shall see in Chapter 1, the utility of the concept of “fictitious capital”), and it strives to intervene in that process by spinning a different story, and, more importantly, by pointing towards the dense, complex, nuanced and conflicted cultural labour that underscores the reproduction of finance capital today.
In the first chapter, I note that it is all too easy to slip into one of two undialectical approaches to finance and financialization. One position, often, but not exclusively, associated with a neoclassical approach, would insist that financial wealth is just as real as any other form of value, determined as it is by the eternal and infallible laws of supply and demand. If there is a real demand for credit default swaps, then their value is as “real” as the value of rice, oil or pickled herring. Such positions tend to reinforce the idea that the financial sector is merely the logical evolution of money: a neutral expedient to facilitate the basic act of exchange. Typically (though not exclusively), those who hold this opinion blame the financial sector’s failures not on the pathology of markets, but on bungled government regulations, subsidies and interventions that skew the market’s inherent ability to properly value real and financial assets alike. By contrast, another school of thought sees the value of financial assets as purely illusory and imaginary, the result of rampant speculation. Some believe such “fictitious capital” is inherent in the capitalist system, others that it has exploded in recent years thanks to government deregulation, the digitization of financial markets and the growth of increasingly unaccountable corporate-financial conglomerates.
The premise of this book is that neither position is particularly helpful, in terms of either understanding or overcoming financialization. Rather, the first chapter suggests we take up Marx’s (1981, 594–652) notion of “fictitious capital” in a way he probably did not intend it: the capitalist system’s reproduction depends on and transforms the social fictions that animate society. Financial wealth is, ultimately, “fictitious,” but that does not make it any less “real”: as we know, fictions can be among the most powerful forces in human societies (King 2003). Indeed, it is through shared fictions that we reproduce social and subjective life itself.
Hence, I draw here upon a concept of “reproduction” to explain the power and influence of finance on “culture” (a term I use advisedly, given that I aim to transgress its usual borders), and the way “culture” is at work at the core of financialization. This concept of reproduction combines three components. First, it draws on Marxist theories of the reproduction of capital accumulation through the displacement of its systemic crises (through war, imperialism and, importantly, speculation). Second, it mobilizes cultural studies approaches that query how capitalist social relations, hegemony and ideology are “reproduced” through cultural texts and everyday life. Third, it leans on feminist conceptualizations of reproduction which refocus our attention on capitalism’s reliance on the subordination of reproductive labour (traditionally, though not exclusively, associated with “women’s work”), and broadens our conception of reproduction to ask deeper, harder questions about the nature of capitalist exploitation and its reliance on other systems of domination such as patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and ablism.
In Chapter 2, I take up the theme of precariousness, a term that has emerged among scholars and activists over the last 20 years to describe the new timbre of work and life in a highly financialized age when the risks of life have been dramatically privatized and downloaded from governments and corporations onto individuals and everyday life. I argue that precariousness is not incidental to financialization; they are deeply and structurally linked, and, indeed, financialization helps create a stark and troubling bifurcation and hierarchy of precarity. At its top, I explore the example of the quintessential figure of the Wall Street financier, the lauded “risk-taker,” whose personal and professional embrace of precariousness as an inherent good makes them extremely effective agents of the broader process of financialization. At the bottom, I explore the plight of the abject “at risk” victim (or, for some, villain) of the recent economic meltdown: the (racialized) sub-prime borrower, whose “toxic” debts poisoned the financial system in 2007. By contrasting these two, I argue, we can add depth and context to the idea and politics of precariousness in financialized times. Indeed, I conclude this chapter by suggesting that finance might well be understood as an elaborate way in which capitalism can obscure the raw and primal reality of what Judith Butler (2006) calls “precarious life,” our shared human condition.
Chapter 3 continues this theme, taking a closer look at one of the most important institutions in the reproduction of American capitalism: Walmart. Not only is Walmart the world’s largest private employer and retailer, it also dominates, or at least dramatically influences, culture and everyday life for hundred of millions of people in the world’s largest economy. Critics of Walmart have rightly condemned the firm for its horrendous labour practices, its creation of a highly exploitative and ecologically destructive supply chain, and the way it fundamentally transforms the retail landscape through predatory pricing that drives local and smaller businesses under. Likewise, cultural critics have taken aim at the firm’s unique, hackneyed corporate culture, which mobilizes American nostalgic idealism and Christian fundamentalism to create a hyper-efficient, if ultimately ruthless, economic juggernaut. In this chapter, I suggest that Walmart can also be fruitfully interpreted through the lens of securitization, a term that neatly connects the financial imperative to manage risk, on the one hand, and the concomitant trend towards increased security, surveillance and militarized pre-emptive action, on the other. In spite of its austere retail ecologies and gimmicky brand image, Walmart, I argue, addresses and shapes its shoppers and its workers as savvy risk-takers, mature neoliberal subjects and sophisticated financial actors, all the while applying the methods and practices of financial risk management to their own operations. I also show how Walmart both employs and broadcasts a cultural politics of securitization. Not only have they developed cutting-edge technologies for surveillance and (as they call it) “threat-research” and “exception management,” they also have worked to associate their brand and their stores with the paranoid, nationalist and militarized “risk-free” idealism and cultural politics of post-9/11 America, which cultural critic Henry Giroux (2004) associates with a proto-fascist authoritarianism. This double meaning of securitization, I argue, helps us understand the ways in which financialization is rooted in the spaces and processes of everyday life and popular culture.
Continuing this theme, Chapter 4 turns to an example of financialization from popular children’s culture. By the late 1990s, Pokémon had become an international phenomenon. In many ways prefiguring the rise of social media frameworks, the Pokémon brand, developed and marketed by the Japanese Nintendo Corporation, was a finely crafted attempt to leverage children’s social capacities towards the sale of commodities whose value ultimately derived from their ability to facilitate social intercourse. The brand, whose products spanned video games, a television cartoon, books, a popular trading card game and literally hundreds of thousands of branded products, proved extremely effective in capturing the imaginations of children around the world. Scholars of the phenomenon rightly point to the simplistic, catchy collectability of Pokémon and the way the brand was able to insinuate itself into children’s social lives. In this chapter, I argue that we can read the rise of Pokémon both as symptomatic of financialization and as a means by which young subjects germane to an era of speculative accumulation are created (or, more accurately, create themselves). The way in which children collect and trade Pokémon cards, I suggest, is an example of how children learn to learn financial skills and attitudes that resonate with a broader cultural climate of financialization. Likewise, children’s proficiency with Pokémon becomes a means by which they perform a certain neoliberal “work of the self,” shaping themselves as subjects germane to a financialized age. This complex process gives us cause to revisit and reconsider tenacious debates within cultural studies (and other fields) about the interplay of structure and agency. Financialization, I suggest, represents a period and a formation of capitalism that relies on the conscription and capture of agency in new and important ways. Aside from any false pieties about the innocence of children or the exploitative marketing strategies of corporations, the example of Pokémon demonstrates the everyday ingenuity and creativity of financialized subjects as facilitated, shaped and encouraged by the complex and shifting paradigm of financialization.
This then leads, in Chapter 5, to a more thorough and involved consideration of the politics of creativity itself in an age of financialization. Here, I suggest that there is more than a passing affinity between the rise of “post-Bretton Woods” (i.e. post-1972) financialization, on the one hand, and the rise in global prominence of the discourse of “creativity” in a neoliberal idiom, on the other. It is supposedly an age of “creative capitalism” that has seen the rise of the “creative class” and “creative cities,” all driven by the eternal and unquestionable force of “creative destruction.” Others (Brouillette 2009; Raunig, Ray and Wuggenig 2011) have noted the way the idea and ideal of creativity operates as a key discursive formation, enabling subtle but important transformations in corporate strategy, government policy and subject formation. These are part and parcel of the shift towards the precarious economy germane to “cognitive capitalism.” In this chapter, I seek to tie these insights into the concomitant rise of financialization. I argue that the financial transformation of governmentality and subjectivity is enabled by and helps create the discursive environment for contemporary creativity rhetoric. I conclude Chapter 5 with a discussion of how creativity’s particular wooliness and euphemistic quality is, in fact, its greatest strength: in an age when seemingly all aspects of life are measured, quantified and speculated upon, the idea of creativity’s peculiar nebulousness in actuality makes it a highly useful discursive formation for financialization. Yet it is also in creativity’s vague and imprecise character that we can find the kernel of some sort of utopian negation to our present moment of neoliberal financialization. Creativity, for all its inadequacies, “works” precisely because it bears the haunting trace of the promise of unalienated labour and, so, carries encrypted within it, in fragmented form, the seeds of a very different society.
Hence, in the sixth and final chapter of this book I take up the question of “resistance” to finance. Here I make three purposefully provocative and perhaps over-stated arguments in order to complicate and advance our discussions of how financialized capitalism might be overcome. The first is to note that, for all its power and lawlessness, the financial sector is a means by which capitalism responds to resistance and also relies on resistance to reproduce itself. Finance emerges as a “fix” for the inherent and intractable crises of capitalist accumulation, including its propensity to evoke workers’ resistance. Meanwhile, the financial sector can only survive to the extent that it is held in check by various forms of resistance, such as when states regulate the financial industry for its own good. Second, I argue that it is well worth entertaining a thought experiment that would imagine the recent waves of financialization as rooted in resistance. Here I suggest that the spike in mass borrowing, both among nations in the third world and among individuals in the first, might be read not merely as the punitive and predatory machinations of capital, but also as a (pyrrhic) working-class or subaltern attempt to reclaim stolen value. In an age of neoliberal and neocolonial retrenchment, debt becomes a means of claiming wealth clawed back by capital. But this leads us to the third argument, which is that, whether or not such points are valid, they reveal the limits of a concept of resistance when applied to finance and financialization. As I have sought to argue throughout the book, financialization fundamentally relies on the conscription of agency, creativity and subjectivity in ways that make any easy notion of resistance problematic. Financialization represents a form of capitalist accumulation that is more sophisticated and nuanced than ever, but also more rampant and pathological.
Yet, of course, the thematic of resistance is central to this book. In the conclusion I once again argue that overcoming financialization demands the abolition of capitalist accumulation. I argue that, for the most part, critical scholarly assessments of financialization explicitly or implicitly orient themselves towards a neo-Keynesian regulatory approach, which I deem insufficient. I will seek to show throughout the book how financialization both foments and relies upon discursive and material formations such as precariousness, security, play, creativity and resistance. These are important fictions that are at once reproduced by and help reproduce finance capitalism. I conclude by suggesting that these fictions can be leveraged into opportunities to reimagine social reproduction and renarrate social fictions in ways that open onto different, common horizons, horizons far more fertile than those opened through a simplistic condemnation of financialization as merely unregulated top-down greed.
This is neither a book on political economy, nor a book about the machinations of the financial sector. Rather, it seeks to develop some theoretical tools for a militant critical theory of financialization. As such, it includes relatively little information about the actual processes of financial accumulation, the policies surrounding the financial services industry, the financialization of the economy or the practices of financiers and financial intermediaries. I am examining financialization as a broad cultural and sociological phenomenon, a category that cannot easily be defined or contained because it is marked by its rhizomatic appearances and viral contagion through the social and cultural field. In general, financialization refers to the expansion and infiltration of the themes, ideas, tropes, measurements, metaphors and influence into spheres seemingly in no way related to the core operations of the financial economy.
But this book is not simply a story about finance overstepping its bounds. Such an approach would make two key mistakes. The first would be to assume that finance has some set of normative bounds to which it ought to be confined, a position which I find historically and politically untenable. Finance has always had too much influence throughout the history of capitalism, and it is my opinion that finance as we know it, along with capitalism, must be abolished in order to overcome this poisonous influence. Second, assuming that the problem with finance is simply its creep into areas of social practice where it should fear to tread denies the way that finance is, in part, driven by actions and agents in everyday life, which is one of the key arguments of this book. We cannot afford to imagine the financial sector as merely some parasitical leech, “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” as the journalist Matt Taibbi (2010, 209) once famously described investment bank Goldman Sachs. Rather, in order to both arrive at a clearer understanding of financialization and also chart a course of struggle that might see us beyond it, we must try to conceptualize it as, at least in part, a “bottom-up” process whereby speculative capitalist social relations are sown in the soil of daily life and social practice and later harvested in ways that do not simply reduce themselves to the conniving villainy of the ruling class, the “1%” or any other singular human agency.
In making this argument, I am not seeking to contradict but, rather, to complicate analyses of financialization that see it as a weapon marshalled by the capitalist ruling class (or a faction thereof) against workers of the world. Let me state clearly here that I understand finance as a disciplinary mechanism of capitalist power, one whose primary purpose is to mobilize debt (of individuals, of firms, of individuals) as a means to better extort and exploit labour, generate and circulate surplus value, and shape the reproduction of social and economic life. Secondarily, but importantly, financialization represents a crucial element of capitalist reproduction, a means by which several of the system’s inherent contradictions can be displaced (see Chapter 6).
My insistence that we understand financialization as rooted in daily life, lived culture and the (re)production of social fictions does not diminish from this approach. But we do need to go beyond the idea that financialization is merely the ideological obfuscation of class interests. Certain financialized processes would encourage us to take this approach, including the way that workers are encouraged that the “markets” in which they may have invested their retirement savings are working in their interests, or the way rhetorics of “human capital” and “creative labour” (see Chapter 5) convince us that we are all self-actualizing entrepreneurs rather than increasingly exploited precarious workers. Financialization does, indeed, serve an ideological function, in the expanded sense of the term mapped by Terry Eagleton (2007). Louis Althusser (2014) spoke of ideology as an imaginary relationship to the realities in which we live, a false cohesive worldview that covers over the inherently partial, fractured and contradictory nature of our consciousness. In this sense, ideology is not some passively received, generic, prepackaged worldview dispensed from on high and automatically internalized. Rather, as Eagleton explains, ideology is an active creation whereby individuals and groups are constantly in the process of making sense of their world with the intellectual and cultural resources that they find at hand. Likewise, Fredric Jameson (1981; 1984) has approached ideology as a false or fragmentary synthesis based on real experience, or an inherently limited attempt to grasp the unfathomable complexity of social totality. Hence, ideology is not simply “false consciousness,” nor is it merely a “top-down” imposition. Rather, it is a field of contestations and activities, an evolving and emerging set of meanings and explanations created by people as they make sense of their world. But, importantly, it is not a totally free or unmediated process: to build ideology, we draw on those cultural and social resources at our disposal (from fiction to films, from metaphors to measurements) that are, themselves, “ideological.” We are unduly influenced by those forces of cultural production and social institutions that monopolize meaning and broadcast knowledge: the media, religion, schools, fiction and so forth.
So, perhaps, we can understand financialization as an ideological process, if we apply this expanded definition: it is a process whereby a set of narrative, metaphoric and procedural resources imported from the financial world come to help explain and reproduce everyday life and the capitalist totality of which we are a part. But, in so doing, they also transform that reality more broadly. To the extent that we see ourselves as miniature financiers, investing in and renting out our human capital, we act, behave and cooperate and reproduce social life differently. To the extent we see health, education, government programming, relationships, games, shopping and work as “investments” and see our lives as fields of paranoid securitization, we build up an ideological armature which occludes certain aspects of social reality and precludes certain futures. But, further (and this is crucial), financialization also means a moment when the financial system, and the capitalist economy of which it is a part, is dependent on and invested in the ideologies, practices and fictions of daily life as never before. In a moment characterized by debt, escalating consumerism and political quietism (or, worse, reactionism), and by a highly volatile financialized economy, the realms of culture and ideology can no longer be said to be merely the superstructure of a “real” economic base. In this book, I want to contribute towards efforts to understand, as Jameson (1998, 60) puts it, the “becoming cultural of the economic and the becoming economic of the cultural”; or, in other words, the dialectics of economics and culture germane to an age overshadowed by fictitious capital.
I hope to enlist the reader into an experiment in narrating financialization in a different way. If, as I argue, the reproduction of social life is, to some extent, based on the social fictions we craft, and if financialization (and the forms of capitalist power it underwrites) is a social fiction that helps shape reproduction, then I hope this book will be a modest contribution to efforts to tell a very different story about finance and financial power. I have sought, throughout, to beg, borrow and steal terms and ideas from finance and use them dialectically, finding the utopian moment within them that is at once the heart of their power and the kernel of their negation.