by Randy Martin
What does it mean to say that finance is the spirit of the age? Not pennies, but a quadrillion dollars seemed to fall from heaven in the derivatives markets. These sprite-like financial products were everywhere, leaving long shadows of risk, inviting untoward volatility, forever coming undone and flying away from the underlying values to which they were once attached. But if they appeared to exist in their own spectral world, derivatives visited all manner of attachment and interdependence on hitherto far flung and disassociated items of credit and debt. Mortgages and interest rates, currency exchange and commodity prices where haunted by all manner of claims to wealth whose bodies lay elsewhere. The ascent of these markets was assured by models so perfect, that they required no regulation. Markets moved to divine algorithms whose proof lay in their very capacities of self-expansion. The acme of materialism had morphed into an effervescent tonic, an elixir to be universally imbibed, a remedy for all that once proved poisonous. This new regime of credit did not even need to be seen to be believed. It was faith-based.
But soon, those once exalted as masters of the universe fell like so many corpses of angels. High priests of the financial order like Alan Greenspan, whose every breath (the etymology of spirit) was said to move markets, confessed that he had “detected a flaw” in the animating ideas that had kept the herds a-grazing. Suddenly prophets appeared as devils in disguise among the innocents. Those evil few overtaken by excessive greed would need to be expelled from the flock. These men of confidence were leagues away from the specialists without spirit that Max Weber worried would become prisoners taken by the spread of a calculating attitude. The earlier spirit of capitalism was retrospective in that it relied upon a backward glance to account for a life well lived. Instead, those individuals possessed by financial reason would be oriented by a speculative gaze by which the future could be made actionable in the present. Rather than deferring gratification for judgment day, the measure of a person’s worth would be made a day at a time. The older pieties of a worldly asceticism by which pleasure would be saved for some final investment would be traded for portfolios constantly fondled to yield their greatest returns. The stalwart conviction that deferred gratification will assure a proper end is exchanged for a gratification in deferral by which financial gains are realized. The financial drive has all the thrills of an extreme sport. After the crash the wreckage was spirited away so the race might resume.
What was recently declared a crisis of finance has scarcely yielded its day of reckoning. While some firms are no more, millions have lost homes and employment and all are being asked to sacrifice their futures. The pursuit of blame has etherized responsibility. Accountability is reserved as a downward pressure on mass aspirations and expectations that mandates greater productivity. Public interest has been defined in terms of restoring private trusts. Finance has recovered to once again scale its dizzying heights but now with a sense of generalized disenchantment. This once occult world has been exposed, but without illumination. For all the havoc it has wrought, finance remains oddly de-materialized. It still stands apart from something designated as real in the economy. It is ethereal, incomprehensible, wasteful. It was as if the opacities of political economy could be rectified by a moral economy—the very move from which industry itself sprang. The age-old desire to sort the truly useful stuff of life from the effluvia that people can surely live without.
Moreover, the apocalyptic narratives of the financial meltdown have their mirrored image in all manner of natural and engineering disasters. Each, it is said, precipitated by an over-reliance on the very models of risk management and assessment meant to tame and master the unproductive uncertainties of nature and industry. Pre-emption is the time and the policy of financial logic, to act on opportunities so as to render their anticipation an act of making them so. But a thousand ships so launched will make for very dangerous waters indeed. As one notorious avatar of danger triumphantly proclaimed from the prow of his pre-emptive vessel, “bring it on.”
Yet if finance is the spirit of the age, this may disclose as much about what counts as spirit as it suggests what matters in finance. For what is said in tones of righteous dismissal regarding finance; namely, that it is unreal and ephemeral yes, but also that it engenders a mutuality of debt to which there is no final account, applies to many realms that are also currently being devalued, dismissed, disinvested. Is not the same thing, for example, said about the humanities, or the arts, or higher education itself for that matter? Might it not be more useful to inquire into what other kinds of debt might be derived from circumstances that flash abundance before our eyes only to say that it is not for us; that advertise the pleasures of risks for which so few are authorized to reap the benefits; or that bring so many strangers into contact so that they might proclaim what future they would value most?
Spirit as verb and noun: to carry away, to intoxicate, to breathe, to make active—might be brought to an end or realized under the sign of a finance that augurs winding up differently than where it began. The solids have been made molten, vaporized, and what was profaned can now be re-animated according to collectively-sustainable principles of motion. This sudden materialization of a spirit of association that brings the far near and the future present is a medium by which a transformative spirituality might itself be financed.