Departure of the Witches, 2011. Photo: Penny

Financialization, precarity and reactionary authoritarianism

  • October 16, 2017

Capitalism & Crisis

By increasing global competition, the precariousness wrought by financialization has laid the foundations for reactionary authoritarianism around the world.

The following is an excerpt from Max Haiven’s 2014 book Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life, released last month in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan. The book argues that financialization is not just the increasing power and authority of speculative capital over the global economy, but also the way the it seems into and is reflected in politics, social institutions and the realm of cultural meaning.

This section comes at the end of a chapter on the ways financialization both drives onward and depends on the increasing precariousness of workers, putting us into global competition with one another and also infecting our sense of value and success. Haiven argues that this situation produces a tendency towards reactionary authoritarianism based on a “forgetting” and a loathing of our shared human condition of precariousness. He concludes by asking us to consider other models for thinking about debt and precarity that stress radical interdependence.

It is followed by a brief authors’ note reflecting on the piece four years since it was first penned in 2013.

Precarious fear and loathing

Today precariousness is the norm, not the exception. Our current precarious moment, one dominated by market and financial forces and manifesting itself as a violent form of hyper-neoliberal austerity (which is producing ever more and deeper economic precariousness), is only one particularly pernicious manifestation of an underlying ontological condition. It is worse than many such manifestations precisely because it is so successful in privatizing precariousness through the logic of individualism and competition.

We come to blame ourselves, rather than the system, for our precariousness, in part because, unlike some rigid caste-based system or a slave society, we are (most of us) legally and technically free to escape precariousness (though, ironically, to escape by embracing precarity, by using every skill, talent and asset we might possess to leverage ourselves into fabled prosperity). It is a system that works by promising that we can, each of us, alone, escape our existential condition of precariousness by getting rich, by obeying the system’s axiomatic dictates and playing our role.

The constant barrage of images and tales of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, of celebrities and of others who have “made it” do not exist (as they did in a previous era) to show us the right social order and the natural superiority of certain sorts of people. Rather, these ubiquitous dream-images promise each of us a life without precariousness or, more accurately (if we think about the cinematic depictions of the Wall Street predator) a life where precariousness is mastered and leveraged.

This helps explain the virulent disdain that grows and grows towards the poor, the refugee, the  (almost always racialized) populations deemed to be “at risk.” To the extent that we succeed in leveraging ourselves out of the total liquidation of our lives by building up a life of financial prosperity and (the illusion of) security, we are compelled to close ourselves off to what Judith Butler, drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, calls the “face” of the other: the empathetic image of existential suffering. In fact, to the extent participation in financialization has come afford us the privilege of forgetting our inherent shared condition of precariousness, we come to loathe the face of precarity, loathe the way it calls us back into a fellow precarious human body.

The colors of risk

As a result, we should not expect that the almost universal adoption of the free market will lead to any sort of peace or cosmopolitanism in the world, as neoliberal thinkers like Fredrich Hayek or Francis Fukayama believed. Nor should we assume that the financialized age of austerity will prompt such a wave of popular discontent that radical social transformation is inevitable. To the extent that we are made more and more precarious, we brew an existential anger, a self-loathing that can easily be displaced onto convenient others.

Ironically, it is not easily displaced onto the architects and beneficiaries of financialized capitalism, but instead gravitates towards the more precarious, the more abject: they who call us back into the shared precarious what Marx called our “species being,” our shared precarious condition as imaginative cooperative animals dependent on one another for joy and survival. While this may or may not manifest itself in the form of new nationalisms, it will manifest itself in the form of hatred towards the homeless, towards refugees, towards welfare recipients and towards others.

It is vital to note that, in North America and Europe, and in different ways elsewhere, this precarious vitriol cannot be separated from the history of race and racism. Older modes of racial enslavement, apartheid and segregation served the same function, similarly allowing those read as “white” to posit a superior form of humanity which both occluded a shared precariousness and elevated the material wealth and security of whites at the expense of immiserated, exploited and impoverished non-whites (in different ways, in different times and places).

Indeed, earlier moments of capitalism explicitly mobilized whiteness and its real and perceived benefits vis-a-vis precariousness to divide workers along color lines, a condition that fed, and was fed by, the existential precariousness of non-whites who, as second-class citizens, slaves, migrant laborers or perpetual “outsiders,” were not afforded the same personal safety or security (neither de jure nor de facto).

The current reigning assumption is that we have entered a “post-racial” moment, that racism is merely a marginal anachronism, and that racialized people face no systemic barriers to achieving a non-precarious life like “everyone else” — in other words, they are as free to enter the market as anyone else, and the market does not “see” race. The opposite is, in fact, the case: racism and racial inequality towards non-white people persist and, in some ways, are even worse thanks to the mechanisms of financialized market which also works to make those inequalities functionally invisible.

Banking on resentment

On another level, we might speculate that precariousness, in both image and concept, is already racialized, that our understandings of what it means to be precarious, and the negative associations with which this term resonates, are already coded as non-white and call up a legacy and a present of racialized images of abjection, destitution, subservience and shiftlessness. Indeed, we might ask to what extent political systems in the West base their legitimacy on the invisiblized darkness of precariousness. The politically expedient citation of the disappearance of “hard-working Americans” and “the middle class” (both of which are imagined as white) into a dark miasma of economic depression is indelibly associated with popular depictions of ghettos and menial racialized workers.

Suffice it for now to say that we can certainly see these trends as played out in largely white backlash movements which have arisen to confront non-white peoples’ or groups’ claims to social and economic justice. From anti-Muslim organizing in Western Europe (framed in terms of defending a white national heritage and white workers), to anti-Black “whitelash” in the United States (from the Detroit Riots to Rodney King to Trayvon Martin), to the anti-Indigenous vitriol in my home country of Canada, these seemingly spontaneous “social movements” speak not only to the politics of ignorance and fear, but also to the socio-economic conditions of precariousness, as well as the perceived failure of the state to live up to its promises to prevent precariousness for white people, all coupled with a history that locates precariousness along the axes of race and racialization.

This deeper existential and ontological crisis and anger is joined by another: the crisis of the middle class. Those professional or semi-professional workers who have been taught to expect middle-class incomes and job security are quickly finding themselves disposable in a vast pool of precarious workers, leading highly indebted, precarious lives with little hope for reprieve. In the coming years, increasingly fascistic political powers will gain ground by offering hollow promises to rebuild the middle class and to end precarity, through neocolonial geopolitical adventure or by creating or maintaining localized under-classes of hyper-precarious migrant or abject workers.

The cult of risk management

What would a politics look like that promised not to end but to embrace precariousness, not as an inescapable economic “reality” (which is what our current system of financialized austerity pledges) but as a socio-ontological sine qua non?

The answer is yet to be determined. But, ironically, an answer may be emerging out of the financialized paradigm that has driven precariousness to a new level of universality and acuity. The speculative ethos that animates financialization is one intimately and irreducibly acquainted with the ontological realities of precariousness. “Risk” and “risk management” are, underneath all their trappings of quantitative and scientistic rigour, mythological constructs for engaging with, navigating through and manipulating the cultural fabric of precariousness. Investments are, at a certain abstract level, attempts to leverage precarious life into more advantageous out- comes.

Finance, as a broad sphere of activities, is a mechanism by which individuals and society at-large seek to gain agency over the precariousness and contingency of the future. It is a particularly perverse mechanism, and one whose logic and mechanisms are either occluded from sight, or so complex, rapid or vast to be fully grasped, even by their primary engineers and agents in hedge funds and investment banks. Yet finance reproduces itself by cultivating and mobilizing the energies, creativity and hope of almost everyone in their attempts to thwart or diminish precarity, and aggregates all these individual and institutional actions into a system which, tragically, only drives greater and greater precariousness.

Generative debts?

The silver lining is perhaps this: what financialization reveals is the inherent futurity of precariousness. The word itself derives from the Latin prex or prayer, with strong connotations of begging or soliciting: yearning for future outcomes, throwing oneself on the mercy of fate or divine provenance. What our financialized moment might reveal is that our shared precariousness, which is the condition both of disastrous authoritarianism (including the disorganized and diffuse totalitarianism of finance capital itself) and of solidarity, does not only emerge from our shared material and ontological conditions; it is also a horizon of shared futurity. That is, precariousness carries encrypted within it a shared relationship with the future.

In this sense, nascent anti-debt organizing in the United States and elsewhere bears a great deal of potential. As Richard Dienst, David Graeber and Andrew Ross all affirm, the politics of debt, if they are to be a radical challenge to the financialized empire, cannot simply be a demand for some libertarian fantasy of complete individual freedom. Rather, they must embrace a broader, more capacious concept of the ontological wealth of social bonds that make life possible, that render all of us precariously reliant on one another. In this sense, they, each in their own way, encourage us to envision an expanded notion of (non-monetary) debt beyond as a grounds for crafting and building common futures through the entanglement of our social relationships.

Likewise, Angela Mitropoulos insists on the importance of moving beyond the limited concepts of financial debt and “debt servitude,” which depend upon and exalt the ideal of the individuated (white, masculine) self, the esteemed, contract-making personage at the heart of Western liberal political and economic philosophy and law. She notes that behind today’s politics of debt there reside the unacknowledged debts germane to the worlds of social reproduction and affective labor on which we all rely, which today are increasingly commodified in the so-called service sector. Indeed, the growth of precarious, feminized service-based labor over the past few decades cannot be separated from the rise of debt as a means to discipline workers and extract surplus value. Beyond the hollow promise of an ideal state of freedom from all obligations, radical potentialities might emerge from the affirmation and recognition of shared interdependency, of the shared need for what today is misrecognized as “service.” As she puts it:

The question it seems to me is not whether our debts can be erased, but what the lines of indebtedness are, how debt is defined, whether it takes the form of a financial obligation or some other consideration of relational inter-dependence, of the forms of life that the routine accounting of debts lets flourish or those that it obscures behind propositions of a seemingly more natural order of individuation, dependence, and obligation.

Beyond the colonial bond?

Glen Coulthard articulates a radical Indigenous reenvisioning of obligation that goes well beyond the Western philosophical canon:

Consider the following example from my people, the Dene Nations of what is now the Northwest Territories, Canada. In the Yellowknives Dene (or Weledeh) dialect of Dogrib, land (or dè) is translated in relational terms as that which encompasses not only the land (understood here as material), but also people and ani- mals, rocks and trees, lakes and rivers, and so on. Seen in this light, we are as much a part of the land as any other element. Furthermore, within this system of relations human beings are not the only constituent believed to embody spirit or agency. Ethically, this meant that humans held certain obligations to the land, animals, plants, and lakes in much the same way that we hold obligations to other people. And if these obligations were met, then the land, animals, plants and lakes would reciprocate and meet their obligations to humans, thus ensuring the survival and well-being of all over time.

Coulthard’s articulation of a broader field of grounded land-based obligation, reciprocity and care demonstrates the radical potentialities that might emerge from a reconsideration of the bonds of debt and the conditions of shared precarity, were we open to re-envision their meanings beyond the hollow promises of security proffered by capital and the state.

Since the publication of Cultures of Financialization I have felt unhappily vindicated in my suspicion that financialization would give right to revanchist authoritarianism. But were I to approach the topic of this excerpt again, I would take more care to locate the origins of the loathing of precariousness within the specific histories of anti-Black racism. I would approach this by making more explicit the origins of finance capital in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slave economies in the Americas. I would follow this tendency through to the present-day ways that anti-Black racism and white-supremacy, as the template and operating condition of all forms of modern racism, is manifested again and again in the machinations of the financial empire, from the continued neocolonial pillage of Africa to the racialized dimension of the sub-prime loan crisis which led to the single largest theft of Black family wealth since Reconstruction.

Were I to approach this topic again I would also stress more centrally the ways in which settler colonialism destroys and denigrates a cooperative relationship with land, most horrifically by seeking the systematic elimination of autonomous Indigenous presence and power on land. I would seek to understand (as I have elsewhere) how settler colonialism has always been a financialized project, and how financialization has, historically and in the present, been enabled by settler colonialism.

I think that only with these in mind can we seek to understand how financialization has given rise not only to new forms of authoritarianism that promise (white people) respite from the precarity financialization has created, but which are fundamentally based on the acceleration and intensification of white supremacy and settler colonialism.

Finally, were I to approach this chapter again I would caution myself against a conclusion that could appear to call for a kind of new universalist embrace of shared precarity. I would have concerned myself with the way such a universalism, while noble in a certain abstract sense, can work to erase precisely the continued centrality of (anti-Black) racism and settler colonialism. Instead, I would have stressed that overcoming financialized precarity and these systems of oppression and exploitation will be based not only on high-minded virtues but meaningful relationships of militant solidarity and the collective invention of new forms of power, new institutions of care and new frames and practices of revolutionary thought and action.

Correction, October 30, 2017: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Trayvon Martin’s first name as “Trevon.”

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