TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 2017

THE ASCENDANCY OF FINANCE: MONEY, SOVEREIGNTY, AND POLITICS

TODAY, MONEY RULES THE WORLD—literally, as Joseph Vogl argues in his forthcoming book, The Ascendancy of Finance. Here, Artforum presents an exclusive excerpt, in which the media theorist demonstrates how the market has overtaken the state. The finance sector—with the unprecedented rise of financialization, debt, and speculation—now thoroughly dominates governance, social relations, and daily experience. In response, Vogl suggests, we need new ways of resisting the unbounded influence of the financial regime on modern power and public life.

Workers at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Washington, DC, June 26, 1929. Photo: Library of Congress.

IN TODAY’S FINANCIAL REGIME, new forms of social control are combined with a renunciation of the welfare-state consensus that moderated postwar capitalism. Since the middle of the past century, it has been discussed how the laws of the market and the capitalist economy can be made to harmonize with those of social reproduction. Market laws, it is argued, need not apply to market phenomena alone; the aim should also be to “organize the economy of the social body according to the rules of the market economy.” The principles of optimized social productivity are premised on a greater need for integration into the fabric of economic relations; generally, it is about establishing a form of government in which economic dynamics determine social process. This not only means restructuring institutions and designing an axiomatics whose formal—in other words, legal and institutional—structures guarantee that the social order constitutes itself according to the mechanisms of the market economy, creating a space of possibility for the survival of capitalism.1 It also means interpreting market relations in the broad sense, so that they extend to transactions and interactions as such; in other words, to the entirety of “human actions,” to a universal praxeology.

The financial-economic regime becomes a fait social total through a universalization of the corporate model. By mobilizing its subjects, economic governance enables competition to penetrate the thicket of social relations. Relations between market competitors are no longer sporadic and local, but permanent, beholden to the expectation that the proliferation of new markets, together with their structures of incentive, will enable the coordination of complex individual behavior. This means that economic subjects behave not merely as agents of trade, as producers or consumers, but also as corporations with corresponding motivations, activities, and structures. Households are defined as “production units or small factories,” individuals as microenterprises. When Michel Foucault refers to the formative, formalizing, and informative power of corporate culture on society, then he means not the gearing of the totality of behavioral forms toward the requirements of the market, but the activation of the traces of market conformity in the entirety of individual practices and motives, projects, objectives, and decisions. It is about economizing the everyday, diffusing corporate structures throughout the social tissue.2 The corporate form functions both as an institution for the transformation of life into value and as the model for the regulation and alignment of social relations.

The “human,” or “social,” capital thus activated is integrated into the profit-generation process of financial markets. The privatization of social-security systems not only flexibilized waged labor and introduced a repressive administration of poverty and unemployment, it also desolidarized welfare burdens, individualized risk, and made people’s lives dependent on financial cycles. Income and pensions are redistributed; financially defined health and retirement insurance turns wage earners into players on the financial markets. A governmental power emerges that connects welfare and pensions, savings and health care, education and professional biographies, to the risks of the financial system. If economic government is understood as a set of measures and procedures that transforms individuals and populations into resources for the production of wealth, then financialization leads to a redistribution of life in the realm of use and value. The conduct of one’s life, one’s relations to oneself and to the world, become investments through which one attaches oneself to market fluctuations. Since the turn of the millennium, this financial-economic integration has been presented as a new social utopia:

We need to democratize finance and bring the advantages enjoyed by the clients of Wall Street to the customers of Wal-Mart. We need to extend finance beyond our major financial capitals to the rest of the world. We need to extend the domain of finance beyond that of physical capital to human capital, and to cover the risks that really matter in our lives. Fortunately, the principles of financial management can now be expanded to include society as a whole. And if we are to thrive as a society, finance must be for all of us—in deep and fundamental ways.3

The “democratization” of the financial world, in other words, the enclosure of populations in the production of financial capital, has also been guaranteed by the refinement of debt economies. Opportunities for private households to contract debt have—particularly in the Anglo-Saxon countries—proliferated thanks to consumer credit, credit-card systems, education costs, and mortgages. With sinking or stagnating real wages, prosperity expectations are realized through a panoply of credit offers, demand for which increased with the property boom. Between 1990 and 2006, the average debt servicing of private households in the US went up from around 11 percent of available income to 14 percent; mortgage debts, which amount to more than 79 percent of GDP, were one of the main areas of expanding consumption. This was enabled through so-called remortgaging, which allows mortgages to be renegotiated, in order to contract more debts on the basis of rising property prices (which were resold via debt derivatives and asset-backed securities).4 The growth of the financial sector was financed primarily by the expansion of the debt market.

The correlate of finance capital and the creditor of last resort is the debt subject who experiences herself as a “securitized” existence; who, with her bare life, takes on liability for the accidents and upheavals of the financial markets. Systematic risk is transferred downward. In 2009, ten thousand foreclosures (and occasionally arrest warrants) against insolvent homeowners were applied for in the US daily, forming a further chapter in the history of “primitive accumulations.” The economic reality of debt subjects represents an elementary financial resource; there can be no better example of what Walter Benjamin referred to as capitalism’s “cult of blame/debt” (verschuldender Kultus). Contemporary politics appropriates this cultish dimension and, citing financial emergency, demands a “sacrifice” from its subjects.5

The inclusion of populations in the cycles of financial risk via this mechanism of social diffusion is the social concomitant of the restructuring of the financial system since the 1970s. The “financialization” of the social field is a process that entails the diversification of market relations, the universalization of corporate culture, the creation of human capital, and the economization of the entirety of human relationships. The efficacy of the regime of accumulation, in which all aspects of individual and social existence are fed into the process of financial-economic value creation, manifests itself in dependencies, obligations, and bonds that influence behavior, unite social and economic reproduction, and coordinate the life of the social body through the movements of speculative capital.6 This marks the dynamic of an apparatus of capture, with which the financial regime suffuses the life-world via the management of risk and debt.7

New York Stock Exchange, New York, 2008. Photo: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos.

IF THE MAGICO-THEOLOGICAL ASPECTS of sovereign power were once associated with the treasury, and the treasury was in turn associated with the financial aspects of credit, then recognition of sovereign rule also implied the acceptance of primordial debt. The disparity of an ineradicable debt is made manifest, in keeping with the etymology of “credit,” whose Indo-European root, kred, spans the religio-economic semantics of trust and request, credence and status as creditor.8 Given the fragility and tension of the actual integration of fiscal affairs and of the monopoly over money and currency into the arcane realm of sovereignty, the sovereign could declare himself as such only by virtue of his status as universal creditor. In his autonomy, he is creditor to his subjects; he is sovereign because he is indebted to nobody and nothing.

Even if justified doubts exist as to whether the canonical doctrines of sovereignty from [Jean] Bodin to [Thomas] Hobbes were ever embodied in the political regimes of the sixteenth century onward, it was matters of finance that served to exemplify the erosion of theoretically consistent concepts of sovereignty. The cycle of public borrowing and private credit was already being seen as a ruinous exception to the exceptionality of sovereign power in the early modern period.9 It was the persistence of the notion that “sovereign is he who decides on the exception” that, under the influence of modern economics, caused classical figures of sovereignty to appear antiquated; that caused political form, statehood, and clear demarcations to seem nonexistent; and that justified the announcement of a new “age of neutralizations and depoliticizations.”10 It is therefore no surprise that the contemporary financial regime is once again associated with a fracturing of the conceptual axis, complicating analysis of the political situation. From this perspective, the epoch of sovereign territorial states and nations was a transient episode in world history; the contemporary status quo is now to be apprehended in terms of a “disaggregated,” “decentered,” “vagabond,” “spread,” “hybrid,” “entrepreneurial,” “imperial,” or simply “new” form of sovereignty.11

However, considerations of this kind imply that former sovereign powers have been not simply weakened or eliminated but altered in form, consistency, and location. Such approaches appeal to a new concept of the political that undermines the dichotomies between politics and economics, sovereignty and government. The logic of a permanent state of exception accompanying the genesis of modern finance takes a further twist. For example, the privatization of money creation and the monopoly on liquidity and currency increases the powers of the financial markets and international institutions. These include not only transnational executive networks and a tapestry of international treaties and organizations but also the global corporations that form a financial-economic system of representation structured such that it functions as a parallel government or bypass vis-à-vis popular sovereignty and conventional systems of political representation. They define the current era of economic governance.

According to recent system-theoretical and quantitative analyses, around thirteen hundred corporations dominate 80 percent of the global economy. In 2007, 147 of these (of which 133 belong to the financial and real estate sector) controlled 40 percent of the worldwide profits of transnational corporations, while thirty-five of them (including Barclays, AXA, JPMorgan Chase & Co., UBS AG, Deutsche Bank AG, and Credit Suisse Group) controlled 35 percent. Here we see not only a concentration of financial capital that limits competition and accumulates systematic risk (Lehman Brothers once belonged to the innermost circle of these corporations). Typifying these corporations is also the fact that they “cumulatively hold the majority share of each other,” thus generating “a complicated web of ownership relations” consisting of chains of subsidiaries, shares, and investments in investments. A close-knit and largely self-regulating bloc of corporations forms an economic “superentity” containing a concentration of network control and financial-economic policy-making power.12

This accumulation of policy-making power, whose political dimension is so far unpredictable, is indicative of an escalation of what the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen referred to as the “sovereign rights of absentee ownership.” By this he meant the transition from a stakeholder economy to a shareholder economy, the mobilization of property and the disobligation of owners, the separation of ownership from the hardships of production, the rise of the rentier, and the “sabotage” of industrial manufacture by shareholder interests. From the start, the modern finance sector was marked by a dynamic whereby financial capital—in transition from phases of expansion to “overaccumulation”—detached itself from the material resistances of trade and production, leading to the migration of centers of accumulation (e.g., from northern Italy to the Netherlands, or from England to the US).13 The contemporary financial industry has set this movement forth via expanding forms of investment capital, funds, investment banks, insurance companies, and private equity, through which natural and legal persons, private individuals, and consortia are united by anticipations of profit from random shares and investments in random corporations in random places. A global system of financial-economic representation emerges that concentrates the electoral force of the absentee owner and the international-finance public in a small number of influential corporations. For example, the financial-services company BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, collects capital from private and institutional investors, controlling assets totaling $3.3 trillion, fifty times the total assets held in the US National Currency Reserve. Simulating two hundred million risk scenarios weekly, its primary occupation is the constant redistribution of assets and investments.14 Corporations like BlackRock have become exemplary incarnations of contemporary capitalist absentee ownership.

If international corporations have developed in parallel with the modern state, obtaining rights of sovereignty in the process, then the financial sector represents the latest phase of this coevolution. From the privileges and freedoms granted by the state to early modern trading corporations to the exemptions through which international regulatory structures privilege investors and creditors, a historical and ontological connection can be traced between capital and sovereign authority.15 A new geoeconomic order has superimposed itself on the old geopolitical order that was dominated by strong territorial states and nations; increased independence from territories and states, the ability to create money, legal and tax mobility, and the mobility of finance capital as such cause a detachment of the new “cosmopolitan citizen,” of the “supercitizen” and its representations.16 On the one hand, finance’s demands for independence are met by the transformation of property owners into rentiers in the sphere of circulation; on the other hand, the authorities and agencies of regulatory capitalism—together with the symbiosis of financial markets, international organizations, national economies, and state institutions—guarantee that the decision-making power of the financial public translates into the life-world of state-bound, telluric, territorially distributed majorities. Only when this double and contrary movement of liberation and domination is taken into account can one speak of the becoming-sovereign of the financial markets, of their “role as a regulator of sovereignty” and emergence as the latest variant of exceptional seignorial power.17 Investment and finance capital, the representation of the worldwide community of investors, can now be understood as the body politic of a collective capitalist. It is generated by processes of financialization, by the liberation of financial-economic dynamics and their regulatory attachment to political and social systems. Forming within it is the universal creditor in a new shape, now as a persona ficta of investors, constituting itself as their makros anthropos. The sovereign figure of the Leviathan has changed its state and become liquid.

The partial privatization of sovereign competencies in the regime of finance has caused a redistribution of reserves of sovereignty. If Hegel’s “civil society” acted as mediator between individual economic interests and sovereign statehood, so the categorical or dialectic antithesis between economy and state, sovereignty and society, sovereign transcendence and social immanence, now becomes obsolete. Financialization transforms the static and ideal nature of sovereign authority into a dynamic axiomatic that enables existing relations of power—whether institutions or distributions of wealth—to make the rules themselves.18

This means, on the one hand, that the ruptures between rule and government, sovereignty and “governance,” exceptional form and legality, are converted into a single field of immanence. Sovereign competencies perpetuate themselves in governmental practice and mechanisms of social control, realizing the bipolar machine of the political economy. This impacts the ontology of the act of government in the regime of finance. The political dimension of capital is sovereign insofar as in it, the production of values is transposed directly onto the exercise of power, asymmetrically wedding the agenda of the financial public to societies and national populations.

On the other hand, the old definition of sovereignty—as legally codified decision-making power mandated to act within a particular territory—is broadened. It now refers to the temporal resources accessed through the purchase of liquidity and the liberation of credit cycles, chains of financing, and cascades of risk. Financial economic power is geared toward transforming future wealth into present-day profit, and toward capitalizing unpredictable futures; it thereby preserves its dynastic persistence. The financial regime of the past century has not only led to a massive accumulation of capital in a few private hands and created a powerful oligarchy that operates a policy of radical wealth defense through formally democratic means. With the ongoing collateralization and confiscation of the future, the market itself becomes a creditor-deity, which in the last resort decides the fate of currencies, national economies, social systems, public infrastructures, and private savings.

If it is characteristic of the financial market that those who feel the impact of its risks have no say in its decision-making, and if risks differ from dangers insofar as they can be attributed to one’s own actions or lack thereof, then for the majority of people who in their complete dependence have nothing to decide, financial systems have turned risks into clear and present dangers. If, in financial capital, the particular character of capital becomes universal, as a uniform power determining the vital processes of society, then with it return, under the most modern conditions, the exceptionality and danger of older figures of sovereignty. This marks the sovereignty effects of the financial regime. It positions itself as a parademocratic, exceptional power. It binds through debt and indebtedness. It adapts social and political structures to financial-economic risk. And it returns the forces and uncertainties of a “perfidious future” (in Keynes’s phrase) to the center of our societies.

Sovereign is he who can transform his own risks into others’ dangers, positioning himself as a creditor of last resort.

Joseph Vogl is Professor of Modern German Literature and Literary, Media, and Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and permanent Visiting Professor at Princeton University.

Joseph Vogl’s The Ascendancy of Finance, translated by Simon Garnett, is out now from Polity (politybooks.com).

NOTES

1. Alexander Rüstow, “Compte-rendu des séances du colloque Walter Lippmann” (August 26–30, 1938), in Travaux du Centre International d’études pour la rénovation du libéralisme, vol. 1 (Paris: Librarie de Médicis, 1939), 83, cited in Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (Basingstoke, UK: Picador, 2010), 242n5; Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), 2; see also Joseph Vogl, Das Gespenst des Kapitals (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2010), 133–40.

2. Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 333; cf. 208, 210–11, 246, 312. See also Joshua Barkan, Corporate Sovereignty: Law and Government Under Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 12.

3. Robert J. Shiller, The New Financial Order: Risk in the 21st Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 1–2.

4. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2010), 18; Christian Marazzi, Verbranntes Geld (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2011), 34–43.

5. According to Mario Monti before his appointment as prime minister in 2011; cited in Jean-Pierre Dupuy, L’avenir de l’économie: Sortir de l’économystification (Paris: Flammarion, 2012), 11.

6. Max Haiven, “Financial Totalitarianism: The Economic, Political, Social and Cultural Rule of Speculative Capital,” Truthout, June 12, 2013, truth-out.org/news/item/16911-financialtotalitarianism-the-economic-political-social-and-cultural-rule-of-speculative-capital; Stefano Lucarelli, “Financialization as Biopower,” in Crisis in the Global Economy: Financial Markets, Social Struggles, and New Political Scenarios, ed. Andrea Fumagalli and Sandro Mezzadra (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2007), 119–38. On “indebted persons” in the financial regime, see Maurizio Lazzarato, Die Fabrik des verschuldeten Menschen: Ein Essay über das neoliberale Leben (Berlin: b-books, 2012); Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Paul Bullock et al. (London: Belknap, 1996–2003), 288–91; also the articles of Marcel Hénaff, Elena Esposito, Birger P. Priddat, Christina von Braun, Jochen Hörisch, Roberto Esposito, and Martin Treml in Bonds: Schuld, Schulden und andere Verbindlichkeiten, ed. Thomas Macho (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2014).

7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 424–75.

8. Émile Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1993), 135–41; Bruno Théret, L’état, la finance et le social (Paris: Éditions Le Découverte, 1995), 571–75.

9. Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la république, vol. 6, ed. M. J. Tooley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), 44, 88–92.

10. Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), 80–96; Schmitt, Political Theology, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5.

11. Jessica Matthews, “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs, January–February 1997, 50–66; Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order: Government Networks and the Disaggregated State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 266–71; Saskia Sassen, Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 31; Ernst Forsthoff, Der Staat der Industriegesellschaft (Munich: Beck, 1971), 14; Barkan, Corporate Sovereignty; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 195–216; Abram Chayes and Antonia Handler Chayes, The New Sovereignty: Compliance with International Regulatory Agreements (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

12. Stefania Vitali, James B. Glattfelder, and Stefano Battiston, “The Network of Global Corporate Control,” PLOS ONE 6, no. 10 (October 2011), doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0025995; Daniel Baumann and Jakob Schwandt, “147 Unternehmen kontrollieren die Welt,” Frankfurter Rundschau, October 24, 2011, fr.de/wirtschaft/maechtige-konzerne-147-unternehmen-kontrollieren-die-welt-a-906561.

13. Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (New York: Viking, 1938), 3; Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (London: Routledge, 2009), 321–25; see also Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 2010), 225–26, 232–44.

14. David Rothkopf, Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government—and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 311, 323–24.

15. Barkan, Corporate Sovereignty, 12.

16. Joseph S. Nye Jr., The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 51; Rothkopf, Power, Inc., 309–15; Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age—Economy, Society and Culture, vol. 1 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 470–76.

17. Walter Opello and Stephen Rosow, The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004), cited in Rothkopf, Power, Inc., 313.

18. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 460–73; see also Hardt and Negri, Empire, 332–58.