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Financial Totalitarianism: The Economic, Political, Social and Cultural Rule of Speculative Capital
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Financial Totalitarianism: The Economic, Political, Social and Cultural Rule of Speculative Capital

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)
At the end of May, it was revealed that a new bill for the regulation of the banking and financial sector was, for all intents and purposes, drafted by Citigroup. This is only the latest in a long list of what can only be called legalized corruption at the highest levels of American power, which has ultimately led to no meaningful policy or legal change in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Avid readers of intrepid Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi and others cannot help but be sickened and struck by the impunity and hubris of America’s financial elites, even as astute students of history will point out the previous moments when the power and influence of financiers has overshadowed economics and politics.
Totalitarianism is not an inappropriate term, not simply because the financial realm holds such a great deal of wealth and power. The term was coined by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to praise the system he created where the ruling ideology dominated every aspect of citizens’ lives. Not only did the fascist state ruthlessly and autocratically dominate the economy and politics, it also sought to transform social life and the culture of the nation to become a total way of life. While there is no pompous fascist figurehead, we can see the tremendous power of the financial sector as a form of disorganized or ad-hoc totalitarianism where financial power and modes of thinking increasingly stain the social fabric. And like the totalitarianisms of old, the “financialization” of life is ultimately directed by and benefits a tiny minority, at the expense of everyone else.
Financialization” generally refers to two overlapping economic processes. First, it speaks to the way an increasing portion of a nation’s wealth is bound up with or represented by the financial sector (generally referred to as the FIRE sector for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), and, consequently, the tremendous influence of the financial sector over corporations, governments and individuals. American financial earnings represent around 8.4% of the national income, rendering the financial sector one of America’s largest “industries.” The wealthiest 10% of the population owns 88% of financial assets, which has helped contribute to the present situation where roughly 40% of the nation’s wealth is controlled by the top 1%, and where the average net worth of the poorest 40% of Americans is almost negative $10,000 (roughly negative $15,000 if home equity is factored out). Financialization means the increased power of banks, hedge funds, private equity firms and other financial actors, and the increasing wealth and power of the top percentile of Americans.
But financialization also refers to the way financial goals, ideas and practices start to shape and influence economic actors outside and beyond the financial sector. So, for instance, increasingly corporations don’t see themselves as producers of goods and services (let alone as employers or community members) but rather as vehicles for financial speculation. Thanks to the so-called “revolution in shareholder value” that saw “activist” financiers take control of corporate governance in the ’90s and early 2000s, most publicly traded companies have oriented their operations not toward steady and reliable profit but toward quarter-to-quarter improvements in stock prices. This has basically meant that non-financial corporations (from major food producers to technology firms) have become obsessed with “performing” innovation and efficiency by firing workers, off-shoring and contracting-out aspects of their businesses, and engaging in risky accounting and financial practices. As corporate America becomes increasingly financialized, it becomes more and more obsessed with squeezing as much money as possible out of consumers and workers, and increasingly callous about things like ecological destruction, the consequences for community, and even the long-term welfare of the corporation itself.
Perhaps the most egregious example comes from Private Equity firms (like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital) which specialize in buying up “distressed” companies and ruthlessly cutting workers, wages, benefits and pensions and off-shoring, selling off or sub-contracting aspects of the corporate infrastructure. Once they’ve “drowned the kittens” (as formerly Canadian media mogul, turned-British-Lord, turned jailbird Conrad Black used to say of the cuts he’d implement when gobbling up a new newspaper), private equity firms sell the “streamlined” company for an immense profit. But even firms that are not yet in trouble are compelled, by shareholders, bondholders and banks, to embrace the austere mentality of financialization, which sees the world as a series of risks and opportunities to be leveraged for speculative gain.
Financialization, of course, also introduces unprecedented volatility and uncertainty into financial markets just as it stitches those markets more deeply into the fabric of everyday life. Financialization is also defined by the increasingly elaborate, chaotic and occult ways that a highly specialized subclass of financial wizards deconstructs investment assets to commodify exposure to differential levels of risk, then reassemble or “securitize” fragments of financial holdings. These and other financial assets (including things like speculative gambles on currency rates, government bonds and food prices, which can ruin whole economies) circulate in a transnational computerized empire of interconnected financial markets, where the majority of trades are automated and which is moving with such sickening velocity that it is a power unto itself.
But financialization means something even more profound than this. It is easy to get wrapped up in the horrifying economic dimensions of finance’s power, but we also need to understand the political, the social and, importantly, the cultural aspects of this process. Financialization is not just something imposed on us all “from above” by smug investment bankers and ruthless private-equity fund managers. It’s also something that relies on all of us to enact financial relations every day. And to change this situation, we need not only to unseat the financial oligarchs but to change those everyday relations as well.
As the example of Citigroup effectively drafting federal financial policy indicates, financialization is a political process, one largely characterized by the ugly and incestuous influence of the financial sector on all levels of government. By now, it is well known that the vast majority of high-level federal regulators, and, indeed, economic bureaucrats around the world, are former employees or consultants for the world’s major banks and financial firms. The financial world is so occult and esoteric that (the financial elite claim) it is impossible for us mere mortals to understand, necessitating the revolving door between Goldman-Sachs and the US Treasury. We can add to this the fact that most nations on earth (and, increasingly, most states, provinces, cities and sometimes school boards, universities, hospitals and other “public” infrastructure), including the United States, are trillions of dollars in debt to the major global financial institutions, meaning that these banks have tremendous power over government policy. They use this influence to force governments to basically act more like financial corporations: cutting jobs, privatizing or charging for services, entering into increasingly risky forms of financial leverage.
If governments (large and small) fail to prove themselves to be good financial managers, they may find it difficult or impossible to borrow enough money to pay the bills. Already we are seeing many cities and towns declaring bankruptcy — not for lack of economic productivity or profligate spending but because they simply cannot keep up with the interest payments on loans they have been forced to take out, largely because, 40 years into a neoliberal, free-market revolution, governments have cut taxes (especially corporate taxes) to such an extent they must borrow money that was once their (our) entitlement.
To this, we can add the vicious circle, where the financial sector mobilizes its power and influence to compel governments to loosen regulation and oversight of their world. That deregulation is precisely what led to the conditions where the sub-prime mortgage could mushroom out of control. Over the past 30 years, subsequent governments were compelled or convinced to weaken and water-down their oversight of the financial sector and mortgage markets. The rest is history, but it brings us to our next point, which is that financialization is also a social process. It is something that happens at the sociological level as well. So, for instance, since the Second World War home ownership has been seen as the single most important factor and indicator of middle-class belonging in the United States. In previous moments, governments have sought to help homeowners in a variety of ways, including the construction of public housing or the creation of semi-governmental companies that would essentially help mitigate banks’ risk in lending to prospective homeowners. The first thing to note about this is that it essentially imagines a basic human need, shelter, as a market good. Indeed, not only are individuals encouraged to buy homes as a means of safety and security, they were, increasingly since the 1970s, encouraged to buy homes as investments, with both governments and financial institutions telling them that the price of homes would rise ever higher. More recently, houses came to be seen as sources of liquid cash and equity, meaning the Americans falling on hard times could easily borrow against the costs of their homes to pay for big expenses (a car, a university diploma, down-payments for one’s children’s homes, etc.). This is part and parcel of a broader shift that encourages us all to see ourselves as individual financial firms or miniature financiers.
With the rise of neoliberal “free”-market oriented economic policies based on the far-right assault on “big government,” public services and public forms of security and insurance have been slashed, leaving individuals to fend for themselves in an increasingly globalized and austere market. The result has been stagnation and decline in average real wages (wages adjusted for inflation), the diminishing net-worth of most Americans, and the rise of increasingly precarious employment (temporary, part-time, contract-based, low-pay, service-oriented etc. — especially for women). It has also resulted in the sense that we can rely on no one but ourselves, and that we are each responsible to manage risks in our own life through prudent “investments” and individualistic profit-seeking. A key and formative example is the transformation of retirement security from a public, shared good to a private, financialized responsibility, one aspect of the vast privatization of life’s risks from society at large to the isolated individual. This financialized ideology has deeply saturated society, and not only in the realm of housing. For instance, education has ceased to be seen as a public good aimed at cultivating a new generation of responsible citizens. Instead, it is seen as an individual investment where students are expected to “leverage” tens of thousands of dollars in debt into a university degree that will allow them to compete on the job market for the right to pay off their debt (recent statistics indicate that some 11% of student loans are more than 90 days delinquent). Indeed, debt has now become the universal condition of the American post-middle class, and juggling credit-card debt, payday loans, bank debt, student loans, medical debt, and other obligations has made us all into grim financial virtuosos. Like the debt of governments, the debt of individuals is not a matter of overspending but an effect of the massive transfer of wealth from the public and workers into the coffers of the financial oligarchy. The resources exist to provide everyone a home, an education, medical care, safe neighborhoods, and decent, meaningful work — the United States is, after all, the wealthiest nation to have ever existed. The problem is that the distribution of the wealth is tragically perverted, and much of it is dedicated to destructive ends, such as the military and the prison industries. Meanwhile, most of us rely on some form of coercive “debtfare” to pay the bills.
The social dimensions of finance include the way financial ideas and measurements increasingly infiltrate other spheres of life. For instance, recently, many governments have been experimenting with social impact bonds, which basically allow private corporations to take a crack at offering services once expected of governments. So a city or state government might give a group of investors the right to administer a program to help decrease the risk of recidivism in “at-risk” youth, with very clear metrics for success. If the private firms fail, they bear the cost; if they succeed, the government effectively pays them the costs, plus a hefty premium. While risky, investors are lured by the potential of a breathtaking return on investment, and governments are lured to a seemingly “risk free” way of offering social services. Social Impact Bonds are a perfect example of the way financial ideas and processes are becoming an answer to all of society’s problems, even if, ironically, it is the financialized economy that is causing those problems in the first place (by, for instance, largely driving the patterns of urban poverty and racialized exclusion that cause youth to be “at risk” in the first place).
We can also look to the hyperbole that surrounds the idea of “financial literacy” for a good example of the sociology of financialization. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the financial elites and governments, in an effort to deflect attention from their own epic failures, pointed to the exploited sub-prime borrowers as the authors of the toxicity that poisoned (and still poisons) the apparently innocent market. New funding was made available by both the public and the private sector for “financial literacy education,” including classes at community centers and even at stores like Walmart, aimed at teaching poor individuals to be better financial subjects. Of course, these financial literacy courses are entirely oriented toward individualizing the financial crisis and admonishing individuals for not being good enough mini-financiers, rather than offering some literacy about the despicable economic and political power of the financial sector as a whole, let alone the fact that the debt, poverty and financial ruin of individuals is typically a function of systemic forces well beyond their control. While prudent personal bookkeeping and budgeting might, indeed, be a worthwhile goal, there are millions of Americans who work hard, pinch their pennies and do nothing wrong and still end up under a mountain of debt. In reality, these educational initiatives really produce a profound financial illiteracy because they distract us from the reality that the cause of our financial woes is a fundamental part of a vastly unequal and exploitative economic system.
We can add to this the way that financialized metaphors and processes have become the only way to interpret and imagine the vast and horrific consequences of the economy itself. For instance, we can point to the way the climate change debate is preoccupied with notions of creating a carbon “market,” the way the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is addressed as a future economic liability rather than an infuriating human tragedy, or the way defenders of public health care and education must justify these social goods as good government “investments” that reduce future costs and “risks.”
So the social dimensions of financialization are all of those ways our sense of collective or public responsibility gets privatized, and the way we are all increasingly imagined to be lonely, isolated risk-takers, competing tooth and nail against one another in an austere and uncaring economy. This social dimension is reinforced and normalized by the cultural dimension of financialization or the way debt, austerity and speculation are “newly normalized.” We can begin to see this in the news. Almost always, the business and economic dimensions of a disaster or a world event take precedence, with commentators worrying about the way hurricanes, terrorist attacks or military interventions in the Middle East will affect stock markets. And despite the fact that the majority of Americans own practically no financial assets at all (or if they do it is in the form of 401(k) or mutual fund plans over which they have little control), the financial and business news, including stock market information, is triumphantly broadcast in every newspaper and TV newscast. We have seen the birth of 24-hour financial television (like Bloomberg, which is named after the financier and media tycoon, who is also the mayor of the continent’s largest city and the world’s largest financial hub – financialization indeed), including obnoxious infotainment like Mad Money, which convinces us that the stock market is some sort of perfect meritocracy where even the little guy can get ahead. But we can also see a culture obsessed and preoccupied with finance emerging elsewhere. There is, for instance, a reality TV fad for shows about property speculation and “flipping,” where the camera follows individuals as they “invest” in homes, hoping to turn a quick profit through renovation and resale. Indeed, this theme of quirky individuals “buying low and selling high” is the theme of plenty of other reality TV programming, from antique collectors to bounty hunters. This is not to mention odious financial celebrities the likes of Donald Trump or Warren Buffet, nor the dominance of the punditry circuit by financier-funded think-tank talking heads or financiers themselves. Nor is it to speak of the ways a society preoccupied by the lonely insomnia of largely immaterial debt gives rise to monstrous collective fantasies and obsessive and addictive patterns of gaming and gambling.
Meanwhile, authors and commentators find fertile metaphors in the financial world to help us understand other aspects of our lives. Relationship and self-help books advise us to approach our personal relationships and our goals and aspirations as if we are financiers, judiciously “investing” our time, affection and identity in profitable and lucrative relations and projects. In a world where the idea of a secure, lifelong job is a thing of the past, we are all encouraged to see ourselves not as workers but as financially-savvy self-branded freelancers, investing in a portfolio of skills and professional relationships, nimbly navigating between contracts and opportunities, always seeking the next advantageous opportunity and ruthlessly competing against one another through self-promotion and selfless dedication. Is it any wonder that, in a culture that is obsessed with individual competition and risk management, we see a growing hatred of the poor and de-privileged? To the extent we see society as a collection of self-seeking, financialized individuals, we blame individuals for their “failures” and relish opportunities to ascribe to them traits of laziness, avarice and profligacy. And in a society where we increasingly live isolated, competitive lives, we lose sight of public and shared issues, including the grave dangers posed by global warming and rising rates of poverty (which tend to lead to crime, violence, expensive and destructive forms of incarceration and disease).
We financialized subjects become increasingly unable to see or understand systemic forms of oppression and exploitation. If we are all equally free to compete on the market for employment and wealth, how can racism, sexism or ableism continue to exist except as the irrational prejudices of individuals? Rendered invisible, oppression and inequality, which remain a central part of the American economy and society, are reduced to personal problems. And should anyone dare bring them up, they elicit a viciousbacklash from those who do have racial and gender privilege, but who believe that women, people of color and others are milking the system for special rights or handouts. Needless to say, the financialized subject is the perfect candidate to support far-right political interests which will, ironically, further deregulate and empower the financial sector itself. So, too, does this day and age, characterized by an economy and society dominated by the extreme volatility of financial markets, lend itself to millennialism and religious fundamentalism that offer the illusion of stability, certainty and meaning based on individualizing moralism and the ever-deferred promise of redemption. Far from Marx’s notion of religion as the “opiate of the masses,” today’s fundamentalisms are the crack cocaine of a frantic, paranoid society.
To this we can also add a few “cultural” facts: The vast majority of the “masters” of the financial realm are men who have embraced and champion a form of highly competitive and selfish masculinity, which they assume to be the biological norm. As financial ideas and processes spread throughout society, they carry with them the valorization of these supposedly masculine virtues, even encouraging corporatized women to embrace the barbarian spirit of accumulation. Meanwhile, government stimulus programs are largely aimed at male-dominated industries (construction, engineering and technology, manufacturing) while female-dominated professions (teaching, health care, childcare) are slashed. And women tend to bear the brunt of the unpaid labor that is required of family and friends as children, the disabled and the elderly can no longer rely on state-based assistance for care. We can also note the way that a financialized society privileges those with initial capital to “invest” or with good credit ratings. In a nation where racialized people have been historically disadvantaged and have, on average, dramatically lower net worth and credit ratings than their white counterparts, the system tends to reinforce and re-entrench existing racialized inequalities. In a cut and thrust economy, where each of us must compete to find increasingly episodic work and endure periods of unemployment and underemployment (or work multiple jobs), those with mental illness, physical disabilities or reduced mobility are fundamentally disadvantaged.
So financialization is not just the economic supremacy of the financial sector, it is a process that works on the level of economics, politics, sociology and culture. We should not imagine that the political, the social and the cultural lives of finance are simply the bellwether of its economic power — as we have seen, the financial realm, made up as it is of largely imagined and immaterial wealth, conscripts all of us to save, borrow and believe in the totalitarianism of finance. These different levels mutually reinforce one another, and, as a result, even in the wake of the most massive and disastrous financial crisis in living memory, the financial sector is stronger than ever, and the financialization of life continues to accelerate.
Overcoming the totalitarianism of finance, therefore, demands action on the economic, political, social and cultural level. On the economic level, it is important to understand that the financial sector is ultimately only one sector of an inherently exploitative capitalist economy. While at certain times in history the financial sector rises to a supreme position in capitalism, it is capitalism itself which is the problem, not simply its financial aspect. It is a system fundamentally based on transforming human cooperation into an unequal, individualist and competitive struggle of all against all. While other moments of capitalist history, such as post-war New Deal capitalism in the United States, were relatively tamer and gentler, they still relied on the exploitation of workers and the commodification of needs and wants characterized by poverty, inequality and oppression. Hence, attempts to simply better regulate finance will, at best, have only limited success. Even presuming that we could overcome the tremendous power of the financial sector’s insiders and lobbyists in the halls of government, and even presuming we could mobilize a huge enough movement to demand political change, this would, at best, simply return capitalism to a previous stage. And while that might mean better living conditions for some individuals, it wouldn’t solve the broader problems of competition and the power of the market over our lives.
So the answer to financialization, on an economic and political level, must be the rejection of capitalism in favor of some other economic system. Building such a new economy takes place on two levels. On the one hand, it takes the form of building new commons in our cities, neighborhoods and communities. Commons are sets of shared resources that are not commodified. They should include the necessities of life like food, water, shelter, health, education, security and transportation, although most of these are, today, privatized and market-driven. Commons are examples of grassroots democracy, administered by people for people. Community gardens, daycares, health-care clinics, after-school programs, neighborhood crime prevention and restorative justice initiatives, and community kitchens help us all and build an alternative, solidarity-based economy at the grassroots. They are also a transformation of our social and cultural relations that place us at the center of our lives and make us agents of change. Second, the political and economic transformation away from financialization requires we build and network these commons into a mass movement that can reclaim the productive capacity of our society and government. These rising commons can then reclaim the factories, stores, schools, hospitals and firms from the financial elite and put them to work for people as cooperatives, not for corporate profit. They can also transform government into a vehicle to support the commons, rather than for the support of the market.
Already, in the zones where financialization has laid waste to our lives and hopes and communities, the commons are rising to meet people’s needs. Community gardening, new cooperatives and solidarity economies are emerging everywhere. The question of our age will be: Can financial totalitarianism kill these efforts in the cradle or co-opt them somehow into its own framework of value? Or will these commons succeed in making common cause and become the platform for us to reclaim our world? Already we are seeing a struggle over the meaning of the commons: will they simply be an alternative business model or an escape valve for a global capitalism in crisis? Or will they be the bedrock of a trulydifferent system?
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