In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.
The fetishism of commodities takes on heightened meaning during times of acute crisis. Recall the days immediately after 9/11, when various members of our political and business elite implored us to take on the terrorists the best way we knew how: by shopping our way out of the ashes. And was there a more potent symbol of our national revival than the ringing of the opening bell when Wall Street re-upped for business?
Now, with the recent attacks in London, the refrain is less intense, but still audible. Shortly after I tuned in to CNN the morning of the London bombings, a newscaster asked one of the network’s financial analysts, “And how are the markets reacting to all of this?” Initially, the news wasn’t good: the markets were down; investors were flocking to the safe haven of US treasury bonds; tourism-related stocks were sure to drop in value. But there was also an upside: high tech surveillance outfits would likely get a boost; and the price of oil had dropped a bit. At the end of the day, the financial damage wasn’t too severe. As one CNBC commentator put it, “the markets have learned to shrug off these terrorist attacks.”
Now, it’s stating the obvious to point out that mainstream commentators tend to ascribe human qualities to financial markets. But it’s less obvious–and more revealing–that they simultaneously obscure the human underpinnings and ramifications of ‘the market.’ It’s taboo to question the human toll exacted by the financialization of virtually every aspect of life. While anyone with a TV set, radio, or internet hookup is at least vaguely aware of whether Wall Street had a good or bad day, most of us don’t have a clue as to exactly what that means. It’s not common knowledge that a militant approach to confining inflation–a precondition to caffeinated markets and a hallmark of post 1980 monetary policy” correlates to increased unemployment; or that a publicly-traded company’s layoff of its workers or jettisoning of their pension plans tends to sit very well with investors.
If we do truly live in a society of spectacles–or of the spectacle–as Guy Debord said, then the market is the grandest spectacle of them all. Its images are ubiquitous; we know it, but we don’t understand it; it defines our reality; yet most of us are wholly detached from it. It is for these reasons that neoliberal and neoconservative policies aimed at increased levels of privatization and financialization can so easily be identified with progress, despite their deleterious impact on most of humanity.
And it is for these reasons that political elites can continue to use the image of the market to align themselves with the ideals of openness and freedom, despite the fact that their policies often have the opposite effect. Witness President Bush, from his perch at the G8 summit, reacting to the bombings in London: “the contrast couldn’t be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who have got such evil in their hearts that they will take the lives of innocent folks.” In other words, the Masters of the Universe, who have presided over steadily increasing rates of global inequality and poverty over the past several decades and have consistently advocated for massive privatization and financialization, are the ones who will deliver on the prospect of human rights.
As many have noted, we live in a world characterized by twin fundamentalisms–that of radical Islamists who care nothing about the collateral damage they inflict on innocents, as long as their political project is furthered; and that of the neoliberal political and business elite, whose mystical belief in the power of the market allows them, conveniently, to come to the conclusion that their collateral damage isn’t man-made.
If we’re to get outside of this destructive duality and embark on a serious project aimed at realizing human rights and global justice, we’d have to address, head-on, the destruction wrought by decades of neoliberal policy. And we’d have to ask ourselves, ‘How would the market react?’
JOHN WHITLOW is an anti-eviction lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org