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The Specter of Capital
By Joseph Vogl, Joachim Redner, Robert Savage
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 diaphanes, Zürich-Berlin
All rights reserved.
The Black Swan
It happened in New York on an April day in the year 2000. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were still standing. The American economy had been growing non-stop for more than a hundred months; the Dow Jones Industrial Index had just climbed above 11,000 points to reach an all-time high, while electronic trade on the NASDAQ was rallying steadily. From the top floors of the Trump World Tower, not far from UN headquarters, a view of the East River emerged as day broke, revealing the bridges and smokestacks of Queens and in the distance, beyond the suburbs, a misty haze and seagulls swarming far below.
After a sleepless night, a twenty-eight-year-old billionaire fund manager decides to leave his apartment on Manhattan's East Side to go to a hairdresser on the shabby West Side, his part of town as a child. He rides down in one of the private elevators and climbs into his white armorplated stretch limousine, fitted out with cork sound-proofing, surveillance cameras and numerous screens relaying world news and stock exchange prices. His chiefs of security and technology are already waiting for him, along with the chauffeur. The vehicle turns into Forty-seventh Street on its way west, passing one high-rise apartment building after another. As the night wears on, it gets caught up in a series of adventures and complications that may rightly be called an odyssey.
On the way, the fund manager meets his wife and one or other of his mistresses. There is a report that the IMF director has been murdered, and likewise a Russian oligarch, a media entrepreneur, who had been a friend of this young billionaire. Crawling through the traffic, the limousine crosses Park and Madison Avenues, drives through the old Jewish neighborhood and reaches the Broadway theater district, only to be trapped in the chaos of an antiglobalization protest. A bomb explodes at the entrance to an investment bank; as a young man sets himself on fire, our speculator looks on, unaware that he himself will soon fall victim to a pie attack. Suddenly, and for no particular reason, he kills his chief of security and reaches his childhood hairdresser's near the docks. Then, equally inexplicably and abruptly, he leaves the hairdresser, gets involved with three hundred naked extras in a late-night film shoot, and coincidentally runs into his wife for the last time. An ex-colleague is waiting for him in a deserted ruin, and this man, he must finally understand, will be his murderer.
With this strange story, Don DeLillo's 2003 novel takes us right into the arena of the modern financial market, touches on the question of whether that market lends itself to narrative treatment and offers a series of narrative and rhetorical figures to represent the riddle of the finance economy, its protagonists and their operations. In his 1977 novel, Players, DeLillo had already pursued the question of how business finance and stock market speculation can be presented in narrative form. The narrative device he has chosen inCosmopolis—a New York speculator's trip one day to the hairdresser's—amounts to a synopsis of modes of perception and problems which must still be termed capitalist. The key to this achievement is DeLillo's depiction of his main character. Around this figure he develops an allegory of modern finance capitalism, invoking both received historical ideas and contemporary economic theories. At the same time, the particular narrative method employed by the novel, with its hypertrophic amassing of events, raises fundamental questions about how different incidents are interconnected in the current global economy. An opportunity thus presents itself to question the inner workings of the capitalist economy, this system that appears to be our destiny.
DeLillo's first move is to give his fund manager cum speculator some of the proven, canonical features that have distinguished the careers of financial and stock market speculators for at least two hundred years—and ensure that we recognize them. "Young, smart and raised by wolves" (12), renowned for the ruthless efficiency and killer instinct that make him the embodiment of finance capitalism in all its riskiness, DeLillo's hero belongs in a series running from the "condottieri," "pirates," and "werewolves" of the money business in Balzac, through Marx's knights-errant of credit, up to the "mad dogs," "rogue traders," and "wolf packs" of today's foreign exchange markets. Furthermore, DeLillo's protagonist, sporting the vigorous-sounding name of Eric Packer, enters the scene in disguise, as a character mask—or rather, a dream figure, an apparition—personifying the most recent form of finance capitalism. He is not only hyperalert and sleep-deprived, manic and prone to excess, he is at home everywhere and nowhere, an Odysseus of globalization and citizen of a monetary cosmopolis. He is marked, above all, by his longing to leave behind the ponderous heaviness of the material world, where physical conditions of ownership still prevail. He dreams that use values will die out and that the referential dimension of reality will vanish; he dreams, too, of the dissolution of the world into streams of data and the absolute tyranny of the binary code, and he places his faith in the spiritual appeal of cyber- capital, transposed into eternal light via the shimmering and flickering of charts on countless screens.
It is the dream of ultimate, radical transubstantiation. Émile Zola's novel about financial speculation, Money, had already referred to poets of sublime sums of money. This novel deals with a more recent mutation: Verlaine's poète maudit returns in a new generation of professional symbolists. Obsessive and extravagant, they devote themselves to making money "talk to itself" (77) in a free, artificial and self-referential play of signs, sealed against the rest of the world like the cork-lined office-limousine that is so reminiscent of Marcel Proust's insulated bedroom. What is finally accomplished here is nothing less than a raid by the future on the rest of time.
The words and concepts of everyday language, we are told on one occasion, are still overburdened with remnants of historical meaning: they are all too "cumbrous" and "anti-futuristic" (54). By contrast, oscillating share market and foreign exchange mechanisms dictate a rhythm, measured in nanoseconds, from which the traces of history have been erased, annulled in the maelstrom of futures and their derivatives: "The present is being sucked out of the world, to make way for a future of uncontrolled markets with huge investment potential. The future becomes urgent" (79). Just as the market is interested only in prospects for future profit, disregarding past and present, so this form of capitalism dreams of oblivion; it deals with the power of the future and fulfills itself in the end of history.
Faced with the mysteries of the most modern form of finance capitalism, DeLillo responds in his novel by combining elements of the old and the new capitalist mentality. On the one hand, this allows him to portray the addiction to change and the continual revolutionizing of global and economic structures in the name of capitalist free enterprise as a process of "creative destruction," to borrow Schumpeter's famous phrase: "Destroy the past, make the future" (93). The forces of capital were never interested in preservation; they were never "conservative" in that sense. On the other hand, it enables him to show how these forces have freed themselves from the sphere of production. Thanks to the alliance of "technology and capital" (23), the culture of the market has become as insubstantial as it is all-encompassing. The movement of capital now knows no bounds. Freed from the material manifestations of wealth, it has installed itself in "a time beyond geography and touchable money" (36). It dictates its own dynamics and standards of mobility, abandoning all local, social and political constraints.
As a result, market culture can absorb revolt and anarchy as vital expressions of its own system, treating protest as a fantasy spawned by the free market itself and capitalism as the consequential self-optimization of that fantasy: "The protest was a form of systemic hygiene.... It attested again, for the ten thousandth time, to market culture's innovative brilliance, its ability to reshape itself to its own flexible ends, absorbing everything around it" (99). This system, DeLillo's novel of ideas suggests, reforms itself through resistance, neutralizing opposition by assimilating whatever protest actions may spontaneously rise up against it. It achieves perfection—in keeping with the goals of "New Management"—by becoming a veritable fund of creative energy.
It is no accident that the whole course of events is encapsulated in a slogan lifted from the famous opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, a slogan modified by the demonstrators to make the capitalist spirit interchangeable with its former, "spectral" counterpart. Appearing on an electronic stock ticker displayed on the façade of an investment bank, it reads: "A SPECTER IS HAUNTING THE WORLD—THE SPECTER OF CAPITALISM" (96).
This literary compilation of canonical formulae, drawn from both older and more recent analyses of capitalism—from Marx and Engels, through Schumpeter, up to Baudrillard, Boltanski, Chiapello, or Rifkin—forms a tableau depicting the latest in a series of industrial revolutions. With the era of the steam engine and the regime of automation behind it, capitalism is now following a "digital imperative" and, in the process, seeking to regulate "every breath drawn by the billions of people who live on this planet" (24). This must be seen against the backdrop of the massive technological and economic upheaval brought about by the creation of electronic stock exchanges, the spread of computerized trading since the 1980s, the extension of networks, the introduction of ISDN, and the conversion of the frequency spectrum to 300 megahertz, all of which led to exponential growth in the mobility of capital transactions.
At the center of this euphoric alliance of information technology and finance capital, in DeLillo's novel, stands a course of events that lacks clear direction and follows a totally improbable and irrational course—and, in the process, yields an interpretation of what it means to live under conditions created by today's finance economy. This is revealed, on the one hand, by the way narrated events themselves unfold. For the path of DeLillo's allegory of capitalism leads further than expected. It not only runs from the eighty-ninth story of a luxury apartment tower to street-level shabby backyards; it not only moves from east to west, so following the prevailing direction of the American dream; and it not only draws a line from life to death, the place where exchange is no longer possible and all transactions cease. Like another modern Ulysses who spent an entire day wandering through a metropolis, the route taken by DeLillo's protagonist recalls the erratic itinerary of age-old voyages at sea. The allegory amounts in effect to a Homeric pastiche, recalling the fate of Odysseus in all its variants.
It is the path of the nóstos, the circuitous route of a long journey home. For DeLillo, however, the hero's homecoming has become a deadly descent into the realm of childhood, while the ship bearing the hero back from the Aegean is now an armored vehicle, cruising through dangerous metropolitan streets. Homer's Penelope, weaving as she waits, returns as a poetry- spinning heiress to billions. The hero falls into her arms not at the end of his journey but on the way, more than once and entirely by chance. Nausicaa, Circe, Calypso and the Sirens, oracles, and giants have assumed the form of female bodyguards, former lovers and eloquent scholars, as well as avant-garde artists, masked demonstrators and unemployed computer whizzes. And the circle of hell that Dante reserved for cunning Odysseus is realized, at the end of DeLillo's novel, in the sinister scenery of an endlessly drawn-out death moment.
Clearly, this epic tendency in the novel does not presuppose "a world already prosaically ordered," to borrow Hegel's definition of the modern novel. DeLillo leads us instead into a world in which events are loosely or merely episodically interlinked, appearing as external forces and hardships that ultimately take a turn for the worse as they interconnect and escalate in a fateful way. For Hegel, epic conventions are out of keeping with organized society, institutionalized community and above all the rule of law; in DeLillo's hands they mark the entry-point into a zone of elemental danger. Whereas questions regarding security systems, preventive measures, risk assessment, surveillance and harm avoidance accumulate in thoroughly hyperbolical ways early on in the novel—"our system's secure" (12)—security increasingly breaks down as events unfold. The president of the United States, the last exponent of sovereign state power, now exists only as an image of one of the "undead" (77). If a particular moment can be said to represent this situation symbolically, it is the moment when the protagonist uses a code word to release the safety catch on his chief of security's automatic pistol and unexpectedly shoots him dead, thus turning this security measure against itself.
With that, DeLillo's allegory of capitalism steps—beyond the line—into a wilderness at the heart of civilization, a realm where terroristic impulses are given free rein, sudden assaults and attacks dictate the daily rhythm of life and barbarism is rife. It is the world of hwa-byung, susto, or amok, those culture-bound syndromes that have become bywords, in Korea, the Caribbean, or Malaysia, for the way indigenous people vent their repressed rage, pure horror, or panic in acts of uncontrolled violence. The result is a caricature of an emotionally primitive landscape in which the excesses of the "fanatical tropics" (28) are mixed with the horrors of self-mutilation, slaughter, and "red meat" (14). DeLillo's protagonist is pursued in the end by the "power of pre-determined events" (147) and succumbs, as if to a "principle of fate" (107), to the death that has long awaited him. The word "speculator" derives from the Roman name for a sentry (speculari) who kept a lookout for danger or misfortune. In keeping with the general tendency of the narrative, it is this "seer" (46) who himself has taken on the role of the "dangerous person" by the end (19). Having become the point of attraction for all risky situations, he now lies there: robbed, abandoned, and exposed.
On the other hand, it is evident that this narrative interplay of archaic threat, excessive violence, and fatalism only repeats a framework of events dictated by the movements of global capital. Throughout his odyssey through the streets of Manhattan, the young fund manager speculates on the fall of the Japanese yen, thereby pursuing one of the most aggressive financial operations of all, the so-called carry trade. This form of credit-reliant takeover involves using borrowed capital to buy up shares of companies with healthy profit outlooks, as witnessed in recent years in the cases of Porsche/Volkswagen and Schaeffler/Continental. As the example of Packer Capital in DeLillo's novel indicates, this means that large quantities of potentially high-yielding shares can be bought with yen borrowed at low interest rates in expectation of a fall in the exchange rate of the yen, thus maximizing speculative gains. And something unprecedented and unexpected occurs as a result, providing the novel with one of its main plot devices. The erratic course that draws DeLillo's protagonist from one incident to another and on to his death is shadowed or doubled by a wild run on the currency market: "against expectations" (8), the Japanese yen climbs ever higher until nothing can stop its rise; Packer Capital's holdings are wiped out and its CEO is ruined—another odyssey with a fatal outcome.
Excerpted from The Specter of Capital by Joseph Vogl, Joachim Redner, Robert Savage. Copyright © 2010 diaphanes, Zürich-Berlin. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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