One day the story of the decade gone by will be unpacked by others. This was a decade that was bizarre and terrifying – cluttered with event-scenes: massacres, spectacles, war, endless staged media events, and a mysterious violence with shadow perpetrators whose names changed every day in police stories – a million changing acronyms of ‘terror’ groups.
This was of course, the decade where a combination of endless greed, and endless dispossession was naturalized by vacuous ruling elites long-reliant for their ideas on a tribe of management consultants, media industries, fund managers, and neo-liberal intellectuals. Today the capitalist world economy lies in complete shambles, the largest crisis since the crash of 1929.
Who could have imagined but a decade ago that this situation would come to pass? At the beginning of the 1990s capitalism, argued the anthropologists Jean and and John Comarroff, took on a millennial shape, presenting itself as a Second Coming. This was a phenomenon that presents itself as both pragmatic and messianic, a figure of the moment, “ a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation, a capitalism, that if rightly harnessed, is invested with the capacity wholly to transform the universe of the marginalized.”
Neo-Liberal triumphalism generated the most noise in the 1990s, the defeat of Marxism’s Stalinist variant in 1989, ensured that for sure. Globalization became the generalised religion of official capitalism – Asia, and certainly South Asia has never been the same again. One of the main pillars of this was finance. As money, finance became the great narcotic of capitalism – drawing millions through easy credit. Urban populations have rushed to credit cards, and house and consumer loans. With money, millions also rushed to fill the information economy – PAN cards, mobile numbers, bank account details. In the 1990s money accomplished the rapid erosion of the private realm, a feat which older police regimes could only dream of. More interesting, and fantastically, numbers began to stand in for things. In the bubble years that have just ended, it was difficult to have a serious conversation with a sensuous description of things, without reference to its financial value. In buses, roads, everyday conversation, and the pornographic clutter of headlines – the Number took on an inflationary cast – the price of houses, the stock market, land values, an endless spiral upwards. The inflationary, self expanding image of money allegorised an out-of control culture of endless accumulation.
In his brilliant novel Auto-da-fé published in 1935, the writer Elias Canetti narrates the story Peter Kien, an old European bourgeois scholar in Weimar Germany, lost in his books and his library. Very soon, Kien’s world is swept away by the terrifying turmoil of the money economy and inflation. Canetti writes:
Everything that happened— and a great deal happened— depended on one thing, the breakneck devaluation of money. It was more than disorder that smashed over people, it was something like daily explosions; if anything survived one explosion, it got into another one the next day…. In order to stand my ground against the money-minded people in my own family, I had made it a rather cheap virtue to scorn money. I regarded money as something boring, monotonous, that yielded nothing intellectual, and that made the people devoted to it drier, more and more sterile. But now, I suddenly saw it from a different, an eerie side— a demon with a gigantic whip, lashing at everything and reaching people down to their most private nooks and crannies.
Like the destruction of the stable bourgeois world in Canetti’s story, the 1990s saw the money economy tie the lives of millions of city dwellers to the information economy. This was the secret of official money, to access it you bared your soul, your private self. This was the official script at least. As middle class populations entered the legal financial economy, many more inhabited the world of cash, local chit funds, and private loans – the great information black hole for the state.
Finance was the ultimate neoliberal dance with death. The historian Fernand Braudel once argued that financial expansion represented the sign of ‘autumn’, an announcement of systemic decline in capitalism. The vast expansion of the financial system out of sync with the commodity economy allegorised the US’ long decline as a global power. As the US became more dependent on financial expansion to fund global power, its hegemony was completely eroded – with the proliferation of financial centres, and nonlinear networks of money. The US borrowed for everything – wars, property – and sold its debt to the world’s banks. Today, its model in ruins, the US will move from hegemon to a simple capitalist power in the coming decades. Even the future of the US as a power depends on Chinese treasure in its banks. The Second Coming of Neo-liberalism has become the Fall.
There is a cruel pleasure, (I must admit) in tracking the story of those who sold us the official story of the fading decade of Empire and the bubble economy. Yesterday’s neoliberals now claim they were Keynesians. The once inflationary spiral of the bubble economy is only matched by the deflationary intellectual spiral of the political spectrum. Manmohan Singh asks companies to not lay off workers. Indignant television commentators who once chided protestors for daring to oppose “development,” now organise talk shows on the ‘social cost’ of economic excess. On the other side the Keynesians (read orthodox Marxists), who sold us the story of the postcolonial state, now clamour for redemption. The Indian Left, official cadavers of the 20th century, are now recycled as the official economic dissenters, never mind Singur and Nandigram.
The interesting times have just begun, hold on for more.