For twenty-five years the re-invigorated market has progressively and systematically restructured Western social institutions. In a range of ways it has forced governments into the background in social affairs. This has been achieved by assuming, on the one hand, that the management of risk could be taken over by relatively automated market strategies — the mathematisation of risk that only the backroom operators knew existed and which was said to introduce certainty into financial markets. On the other hand, the markets increasingly took on the role of lead investor in major infrastructure projects. As a result, power generation has largely been eliminated from the state sector, as has any involvement in bank ownership or public interest in airports. The funding of major roads has now largely gone to the private sector. There have even been moves towards the privatisation of water.
The effects of this orientation towards the market go far beyond the diminution of the role of the state in economy and society. While success has eluded the market in the privatisation of air, as some market theorists advocated (the major market effect has rather been to treat the biosphere and our oceans as commons to be taken for granted as dumping grounds), it has had greater success in shifting the ethic of intellectual inquiry towards selfinterest and the profit motive. This has left the university in a depleted state. Its once proud traditions, grounded in relations of inquiry that supported the free circulation of ideas, are not beyond retrieval, but they are a fading memory. This same market has also made over family and community institutions, emptying their reciprocal, noncommodified processes of that substance which gave them a basis outside of market forces.
While no one knows how far the current plunge of financial and capital markets will go, there can be no doubting the seriousness of the crisis on Wall Street and in global financial markets. Nor can it be doubted that it will reach significantly into the economy proper. How far that may go depends very much on leadership and political judgement. But this very special neo-liberal market, composed of computerised techniques and global satellite communications, together with an ever-expanding range of engineered financial instruments, has allowed twenty-five years of enhanced leverage of debt. This alone will call out massive contractions now that the worm has turned. It is not merely the fact that the cheap debt that allowed business and individuals to fund projects on a grand scale over the past decade has disappeared. Far more seriously, the availability of credit for everyday working capital and other transactions can no longer be assumed to be available, not even to a state like California. If this situation is unable to be corrected it is likely to be a prelude to a more encompassing social collapse affecting all the institutions.
For a generation now the rule of the market has been taken for granted by a growing proportion of the general and educated public. It was supported by the work of philosophers like F. A. Hayek who, although seeing an irreducible contribution made by the family, denied primacy to any ethics beyond that sustained by the market. It was as though the market became the only defensible social institution. Yet after the Wall Street bailout there is little doubt that this same neo-liberal global market, so central to all levels of contemporary social, economic and cultural affairs, and the major prop for neo-liberal ideology, now faces the most profound challenge to market organisation since the Great Depression. Arguably, this neo-liberal market, even if not the market as such, is in its death throes. It is a failure so significant that it may well turn out to be definitive in terms of the demise of the United States as a superpower.
The enhanced credit leverage of the global market supported a bubble in asset values. Cheap and seemingly endless debt translated into excess. But the demise of this easy money is more than a typical burst of the market bubble as found in the history of the last 400 years. The way in which the neo-liberal market has failed will leave investors and the public wary for many years to come — not merely of the consequences of a bust, but something far more damaging. What we are witnessing is not the result of a series of mistakes, such as subprime lending and excessive borrowing. The core issue is not even evoked by Kevin Rudd’s term ‘extreme capitalism’ because it relies too strongly on a notion of individual weakness (greed).
Rather, it is the composition of the global market as a system which has come into disrepute. The issue is not merely a matter of this or that category of lender losing financial credibility, but is rather a function of the global market as a set of practical circumstances. Financial engineering through the market removes identifiable obligations so far from actual lenders and borrowers that we cannot know who owes money to whom. It becomes impossible to evaluate financial standing. It is a system that builds into its structure a tendency towards poor credit evaluation, a tendency that eventually issued in the subprime crisis. This is a crisis of the financial system as a system, one that will prevent a return to anything resembling the system before the bailout, related guarantees and government buy outs.
There have been many significant economic commentaries in the last year on the meaning of the collapse of capital markets, culminating in the October 2008 crash. However, most commentators have been silent for the past twenty years about the structure of the new financial markets and their special vulnerabilities since their emergence in the 1980s. It is relatively easy once the dominos begin to fall to piece together the dynamics of an unfolding situation. Acceptance of any critique in the face of an ascendant orthodoxy was a very different matter.
Nevertheless, there have been some critiques, none more impressive than Peter Warburton’s Debt and Delusion (1999). It identified precisely the attraction to central bankers of the new financial markets. In particular, Warburton argued how the de-regulation of financial structures created new forms of debt via investment banks (like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) that bypassed the conventional banking structures and, among other things, helped to control general inflation for twenty years while financing excessive government budget deficits in many parts of the world. In a short time, general inflation had become a thing of the ‘past’, an achievement of neoliberalism, while asset inflation, promoted by the new forms of debt, came to be seen as an acceptable form of alternative income. This led to practices such as the constant re-valuation of housing in order to borrow against, and live off, the enhanced values. This process gained positive recognition as a new wealth phenomenon by Alan Greenspan. In other words the benefits felt in terms of lower general inflation led to turning a blind eye to asset inflation and to the deterioration of credit evaluation which accompanied the new financial markets. What would normally have been regarded as practices especially in need of regulation — hedging, options and non-bank financial instruments — were allowed to multiply to the point where they came to be so dominant they were beyond the control of central bankers. This was the fateful pact between central bankers and the financial markets born in the 1980s.
There is much to be admired in the way Warburton predicted this ‘capacity to transmit violent financial disturbances to [every citizen as well as to] communities, regions and entire nations’ via a massive potential collapse of derivatives markets. However, as an economic critique even it is largely blind to the larger forces that framed the emergence of the new financial markets. These markets, whose trade-mark has been to construct debt that concealed those responsible for it while generating ‘instruments’ radically distant from the familiar everyday world, do not engage in such processes arbitrarily. Rather, such practices and markets reflect a more general principle now at work in global society as a whole: the loss of tangibility in our relations with others, as the face-to-face community of persons is significantly displaced by relations that predominantly work at a distance. In short, there has been a gradual emergence of a world that abstracts us from the settings of our common humanity.
While all markets have this effect to some degree, the global financial markets took this tendency to a new level. This is a crucial matter if the way these markets construct their own self-referential world set far apart from the world of ordinary people is to be understood. Firstly, they did this in their own right because they rely upon the computer, the internet and global communications generally to build their structures. Secondly, this was an aspect of a larger process whereby the whole of contempary society has been substantially displaced by a global order constituted in the new forms of communication and production made possible by high technology. That is, the financial revolution is situated within a larger social and cultural revolution. The silicon chip and computerisation, bio-technology, instant communications: these are products of a social revolution that has transformed society over the past thirty years. Global society is defined by a more abstracted way of being, the ‘knowledge’ society, mediated by the way that tertiary institutions have come into a special constitutive relation to society. The high sciences, via high technology, are re-shaping the human and natural world.
Financial engineering in global markets — the construction of instruments that few people can actually understand — corresponds to the engineering of nature in the pursuit of growth in global society. The indifference to others within global markets corresponds to the indifference to nature in a society removed from nature. All areas of society move away from communities composed in regions and known others towards an order constructed around constant global movement, pursuing the ‘liberations’ and instant gratifications offered by high technology. If the contradictions of financial markets that no longer work through tangible lenders and borrowers are now confronting us, this is only the tip of the iceberg of a new order of conflicts.
The crisis of the new financial markets immediately leads to the question of whether this is a pause in the momentum of capitalist growth, be it one year or ten, as most commentators would have it, or a more fundamental historical moment. Does it mark a new realisation of the limits of where the capitalist order can take us? At the very least it seems we are now entering a period of profound uncertainty that will include hardship for many, perhaps most of us. But it could also be a period of genuine possibility. We should keep in mind that the world is not only facing the limits of a now collapsed financial order but also the limits posed by a ravished nature, growing food and resource shortages and unsustainable levels of population. There are movements, however partial, that are seeking to move towards a more rounded life, more in touch with nature and those around them. The ‘food miles’ movement or alternative markets like farmers markets, are cases in point. No particular example is adequate to the task, but these tendencies have deep support; they could quickly take practical institutional shape in today’s circumstances. The need for a social order that entails a more modest demand upon nature and is able to regenerate dense regional social relations that stand in a viable relation to global interchange is an ideal to be pursued. If we are to avoid becoming merely spectators in a world dissolving before our eyes, the organisational stages and processes needed to move towards this ideal should be the subject of intense discussion and practical endeavour.