An edited version of the following text will be published in 2024 as part of Goldsmiths Press’s Finance Aesthetics: A Critical Glossary, edited by Frederik Tygstrup, Torsten Andreasen, Emma Sofie Brogaard, Mikkel Krause Frantzen and Nick Huber.
In a sense, the conspiracy theorists are right: we do live in a world of hideous human sacrifices, superintended by a financially enriched elite. But whereas the conspiracists hallucinate a coordinated cabal of evildoers, the more complex and the more disturbing truth is that the forms of human sacrifice that characterize financialization do not require (and would, in fact, be imperiled by) any such intentional orchestration of efforts. Rather, financialized capitalism must be reckoned as a system, one that reproduces a set of imperatives, enticements, rewards and punishments for competitive economic behaviour that, in only sum, creates an overall movement of capitalism towards a sacrificial world order. No individual needs to utter the prayers or wield the dagger for this system to enact human sacrifice. And whereas the conspiracist imagination fixates on the purity of the innocent victim, notably children, today’s sacrifices are not only individuals in all their complexity, but messy and entangled entities: the climate, the biosphere, the cultural fabric, the very possibility of the future.
The urge to misimagine systemic violence as the work of wicked individuals is not new; it is both symptomatic and constitutive of capitalism’s development. Marx and later Marxist analyses of anti-Semitism indicate how residual racist myths can furnish an explanation for socioeconomic pain and uncertainty among both elites and the exploited. The recent Q-Anon “conspiracy fantasy,” which has gained terrifying worldwide popularity, rehashes many of these tropes with its seductive participatory narrative about a secret war being waged by the righteous against a cabal of blood-drinking child abusers. Michael Taussig has likewise accounted for in his study of the reappearance of the devil in rural Latin America during periods of seismic economic change and social dislocation. Silvia Federici’s account of the role of the witch trials in the development of capitalism’s phase of “primitive accumulation” likewise details how accusations that specific people (mostly but not exclusively women) were engaged in ritual and conspiratorial human sacrifice was key to the destruction of the commons and the uniquely capitalist renovation of patriarchy. In all these cases, a charismatic narrative of human sacrifice, focusing on the evil intentions of individuals or groups, distracts political attention from the broader sacrificial social order.
The rise of conspiracism is typically the result of a combination of, on the one hand, a genuine effort by suffering people to understand a world that seems to be collapsing all around them and, on the other hand, the efforts of predatory manipulators, grifters and entrepreneurs. The line between the two is rarely sharp. This line is even more blurred in an era of financialization, where each subject is exhorted to recast themselves as a speculator and manipulator. The QAnon phenomenon, for example, sees a fluid movement between true believer and online huckster, thanks in no small part to the opportunities provided to monetize attention by corporate social media platforms. But to focus on the cynicism and opportunism is to lose sight of the reality that such theories in fact take root not in obedience to dogma but in a misaimed critical thinking, in a skepticism towards dominant narratives, in a desire to discover and interrogate the workings of power, and in a more or less genuine humanitarian wish, all gone terribly wrong.
At stake is the poverty of a conspiratorial theory of power, which, in line with dominant neoliberal narratives, sees the world as defined by the intentional actions of powerful individual actors, rather than a more capacious critical theory that can analyze systemic and institutional power and, crucially, their contradictory nature.
Yet on a discursive level, a narrative of sacrifice has important systemic functions within such a system. As Wendy Brown notes, under both the economic and cultural shifts of financialization, the notion of sacrifice has been crucial. Individuals are expected to sacrifice time, energy, pleasure and health on the altar of homo oeconomicus in the hopes that idealized figure of competitive risk taking might offer his dark blessing in the form of a return on investment. On a broader political level, the forms of neoliberal policy and austerity, which might have once been cloaked in a rhetoric that suggested that a sacrifice today might bring better tomorrows, now admits that sacrifice is here to stay. In reaction, resurgent far right and fascist political formations today thrive in the environment of endless sacrifice. They gain traction by claiming only they can clearly see and manage the sacrifices that must be made for security: the restoration of the patriarchal family, murder on the border, expulsion, war. It’s sacrifice or be sacrificed.
And yet behind and beyond these more ideological mobilizations of sacrifice is a deeper truth: the term financialization indicates what can be framed as a vast global order of human sacrifice. Here, thanks to the abstract movements of gamed markets, millions of people are condemned to death from completely preventable diseases or privation, or by the effects of anthropogenic climate chaos derived almost entirely from the past centuries of capitalist accumulation. Encoded in the interlaced digital legers of this financial empire is an authorless, decentalized sacrificial order with a metahuman bloodlust, hidden in plain sight. It’s a truth both obvious to everyone and also somehow unspeakable that the poor will die and suffer to protect the privileges of the rich and the competitive vitality of corporations.
Perhaps, however, while sacrifice offers an evocative and provocative metaphor for financialization’s forms of lethal indifference and unintended humanitarian and ecological catastrophes, it is a poor analytic tool. After all, can it be said to be human sacrifice if it is not intentional and not accompanied by religious ritual? Does the spectre of human sacrifice simply rehearse a longstanding vulgar critique of capitalism that, by calling up the spectre of an allegedly premodern barbarism, seek to cast down a hyper-modern political-economic system?
But maybe we have learned to think of human sacrifice the wrong way. Most of what we know about the practice of human sacrifice is irredeemably clouded by modern colonial prejudices that have sensationalized the violent practices of non-Western human sacrifice while ignoring or rationalizing Western, modern forms of human sacrifice. A vast diversity of civilizations practiced some form of human sacrifice at some time in their history, and for very different reasons. While the practice perhaps seemed normal or at least justified in the eyes of those who practiced it, it has perennially been used by outside observers as evidence of barbarism. More often than not, it has been pointed to by outsiders and rivals as a justification for war or in some sense as a distraction from the accusers’ own sacrificial practices. As Tvetan Todorov noted, the sensational scenes painted by the conquistadors of the Aztec “society of sacrifice” helped justify that empire’s liquidation while at the same time mystifying the Spanish “society of massacre.” I have written elsewhere about how the human sacrifices practiced by the Edo Kingdom (located in what is today Nigeria) was used by the British Empire as a justification to, in 1898, invade and destroy that Kingdom, part of a broader tendency towards a kind of capitalist imperialism that sacrificed millions of lives around the world on the altar of white supremacy Christianization and “free trade,” though of course it never understood itself as such.
It is often assumed that the heinous practice of human sacrifice originated in the dark crypt of prehistoric mysticism. But recent evidence seems to suggest that, more often than not, orders of human sacrifice took form as societies became more stratified and imperialistic. Though it may have been disguised in the trappings of religious necessity to appease fickle gods and ensure the continued vitality of the nation, typically elites used human sacrifice as a dramatic means to intimidate the lower classes, vassals and enemies. It was a convenient method for eliminating potential rivals and usurpers and for disguising state terror as cosmological necessity.
If such arguments are to be believed, human sacrifice was always already about what we, today, might call “risk management” on at least two levels. On the one hand, the elites who practiced it used it as a means to eliminate risks to their continued dominance and enrichment; on the other, they presented it to the world as an act undertaken for the public good, a regrettable necessity to control the uncertainty of supernatural providence. Were the sacrifice not made, the Gods might be angered, or might starve, portending doom for a whole society. It helps that, often, those sacrificed are not even considered fully human at all.
How unfamiliar and exotic to us are these metaphysical justifications, really? Today, defenders of global financialized capitalism legitimate its profound sacrificial violence with recourse to the idea that, somehow, to interrupt or intervene in it would be to jeopardize the spirit of economic growth: progress that is said to be universally beneficial. Few today would earnestly parrot the maxims of turn-of-the-millennium capitalist optimism, (eg. “a rising tide lifts all boats”). Yet in the dominant neoliberal ideological framework the progress of the market (its “creative destruction” and “disruptive innovation”) is said to lead to greater overall economic growth, technological innovation and a higher standard of living. It is even rumoured to lead to a “capitalist peace” and the “end of history,” where humanity’s inherent competitive and acquisitive urges are safely sublimated into market activity which, in aggregate, are universally beneficial.
At stake for me in this comparison is the possibility that the cosmological dimensions of financialized capitalism might come into better view. Of course, financial markets are, in an extreme way, made up of a multitude of competing hyper-rational decisions. Yet, while market philosophers like Hayek predicted that, left to their own devices, such markets would usher in a rational political-economic order, the reality is a largely irrational order where growing gaps in wealth are accompanied by profound ecological sacrifices as well as humanitarian catastrophes. According to those thinkers, the market represented the apotheosis of reason, the emergence, for the first time in human history, of a kind of metahuman intelligence free of prejudice, superstition and bias.
At some level a global market-dominated society justifies the human sacrifices it demands in terms of a kind of regrettable but ultimately providential cosmological necessity: it is indeed terrible that those children died of malnutrition or preventable disease, but to prevent it would be to disrupt the transit of the holy market (by, say, raising taxes or by regulating free trade). Such profane actions would, ultimately, have more catastrophic consequences. Such consequences, we are told, might not only include the stagnation of economic growth but the appearance of the demonic forces of unfreedom.
If we look at the global financialized capitalist system from the right angle, squint and defamiliarize ourselves with the normalized justifications, it appears as an empire built on human sacrifice not unlike any other. But what is perhaps different is how the reigning cosmology of the market is how it shapes our actions and dispositions, whether we believe in the finer points of its theology or not. Financialization encourages each of us to adopt the dispositions of the imagined financier, the risk manager. I have suggested that this contributes to the conditions within which certain far-right and postfasicst ideologies can find footing. The daily experience of uncertainty, insecurity, individualism and competitiveness reinforces a cosmological view of a universe made up of similarly uncertain, competitive, speculative beings.
Within such an imagined world, ever greater human sacrifice can be envisioned and justified. The losers of a competitive system are now recast not as momentarily unlucky but fundamentally flawed, poor imitations of the idealized figure of financialization. Worse still, the dependency of the losers of financialization on the winners is, in a world of increasingly scarce resources and relentless competition, a threat to the continued success (and survival) of the winners. Financialization is in some sense a global order of human sacrifice in which we are all both participants and potential victims. Like the sacrificial empires of old, ours justifies its bloodletting in the name of cosmological necessity: the market demands it, and to fail to heed or feed the market would be to invite both personal and collective doom. In other sacrificial empires elites use mystical theology and gory spectacle to consolidate their rule, and claim that their sacrificial acts are in the public interest. Today, the sacrificial blade and altar are dematerialized and diffused. We are all, to greater or lesser extents, compelled to participate, even those who are destined to be sacrificed. Their sacrifice will typically take the form of invisibilized abandonment, rather than hypervisible ritual. Yet like other orders of sacrifice it stems from a largely unquestioned cosmology, a cosmology no one might actually fully believe in and yet which still structures our imaginations.
For Sylvia Wynter, the cosmology of homo oeconomicus is one whose origins stem from the Euroepan colonial project and transatlantic slave trade at the birth of the capitalist-imperialist system. This cosmology, which I am here associating with sacrificial financialization, is both fundamentally built on racist notions of what it means to be human but also, in a global neoliberal age, suggests that homo oeconomicus is a model that all people can and should strive to emulate and embody. But its success in capturing the imagination and shaping the material world is bound up with the way it vanquishes or delegitimates many other “genres” of being human practiced by other civilizations, which it takes to simply be poor, unreflexive emulations of the truth of homo oeconomicus.If we are to have a chance of surviving cosmology of financialization we must, do nothing less than reimagine what it means to be human. Such a reimagining would be a material practice of rebellion and experimentation and would necessarily imply not the end of sacrifice, but a different mode of sacrifice, perhaps more in line with George Bataille’s theories that understand sacrifice as among the highest purposes for any society.
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