INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTIAN MARAZZI
In your book Capitale & linguaggio (Capital & Language, 2002), you state that the crisis is the moment in which historical memory, i.e. memories of crises of the past, resurface powerfully. What role might images of memory have today in the economic analysis of the current crisis?
Christian Marazzi: “Every crisis should also be considered as a device that brings revelation, in some ways a technology of truth that exposes all that was being accumulated during the previous phase, the contradictions that accompany the process of development of events. Considered from this perspective, a crisis is also a moment when memory stamps itself on oblivion, because forgetfulness, thoughtlessness and irresponsibility prevail during the growth phase, whereas historical memory becomes a characteristic of moments of crisis.
Crises are always—somewhat “Nietzscheanically”—the eternal return of the equal and the different. Of the equal because they always represent a moment of deflagration, of impoverishment and dismay. Therefore, as such they repeat themselves through history, but at the same time they differ from one another because they are the outcome of processes of accumulation, production, and economic and social growth that vary from one period to another. For example, compared to the crisis of 2007, the current Coronavirus crisis is very different, as the 2007 one was above all linked to the banking system. Of course, the 2007 crisis also affected the financial world, but those that suffered were first and foremost the banks, which had accumulated toxic securities that encouraged a huge expansion—especially in the United States—of the real estate sector, for example, by means of subprime mortgages. In contrast, the pandemic crisis has erupted on both the demand side, with the interruption to production and a linear reduction in incomes, and—at the same time—on the supply side with regard to production. These two instances are having, or have already had, a very heavy impact, which is far from being overcome in the next months. There are those, in fact, who think a recovery will arrive relatively quickly, which will follow the drastic falling-off in economic activity that took place in March, as was reflected on the financial markets. These are recovering as a result of monetary policies, intervention by states, and in particular the injection of huge amounts of liquidity.
It will then be crucial for us to clearly understand the depth of this crisis in the real economy, by which I mean how many of those who have been pushed to the margins of the economy, for example with forms of reduced work or layoff, will return to work or not. In the meantime, processes of rationalization and digitization are already under way to increase work productivity, in order to reach the point of recovery ahead of the competition, a process that is having very problematic effects on employment, which is probably one of the most dramatic social aspects of the whole affair.”
From the viewpoint of the markets, what does it mean to go beyond nationalisms?
CM: “The first obvious thing about this crisis, as well as those of recent times, is its global dimension. In the official collective narrative, by definition this is a planetary crisis that began in a market in Wuhan and then spread everywhere very quickly. It continues to have this worldwide dimension because outbreaks move on a global scale. Even the measures taken to deal with this crisis are, if not global, at least continental. In Europe, it is apparent that we cannot think of a recovery in purely national or sovereign terms. Following long international debates, that in many cases have been very hard and controversial, an agreement has been reached, a consensus that is also a historic turning point for Europe, as finally an attempt is being made to handle the crisis collectively, with the issuance of bonds and the consequent mutualization of the debt. This agreement provides for the raising of capital which will involve a European debt on the one hand, but, on the other, also the provision of forms of aid both in the form of loans and subsidies to individual countries in accordance with the acuteness of their crisis. We can talk about the European dimension from both the standpoint of the situation and the experience of all the countries that make up Europe, and from the standpoint of the measures that have been agreed, because this is a crisis that, if left to individual member states or countries, is unresolvable, because it is very heavy and dramatic. In strictly pragmatic terms, and beyond ideology, we can say that it is only at a European level that a process of economic recovery can be planned.”
How might future forms of economic power be described?
CM: “In an article published in The Economist in March, the term ‘coronopticon’ was coined to describe a panopticon linked with the Coronavirus. Clearly, this was seen from the viewpoint of the surveillance society, which was thoroughly studied by Shoshana Zuboff in her 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, with reference to the information and communication technologies such as those used by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. As is known, these groups now wield enormous power that is today the object of strong criticism and attacks from antitrust authorities, who consider this supremacy ominous, even if only from an economic point of view, because it inhibits competition, small and medium-sized companies, and in some ways even innovation. In fact, there is a continuity between surveillance capitalism tied up closely with the web, which sees all our user content and every behavior as a source of information that can be monetized, in terms of marketing and advertising, and these new forms of control called ‘coronopticon,’ because the need to trace and reconstruct the paths of contagion entails another step forward in this logic of control.
All this also originates in the economy’s linguistic shift, at a moment when, even before the development of digital technologies, the world of work began to incorporate communication, that is to say, when communication became a real aspect of production. Working via and while communicating means breathing with the market—and this became even more the case when computers became the infrastructure of these interactions, as a result of which we now work together in different parts of the world as elements of a production unit.
The role of communication and information that underlies the post-Fordist breakthrough is to enable us to work just-in-time, breathing with the market, responding to supply demands in real time. Production no longer has the purpose of accumulating stock that is then sold in accordance with demand, as was the case in the Fordist era, but in accordance with what the market requests in real time. Just-in-time production is one of the major problems highlighted by the Coronavirus crisis, because at the moment that there was a need for masks, respirators and other health equipment, these were simply not available. This represents a further unravelling of the fragile capitalism that has expanded in aggressive fashion in recent decades, saving on space, warehouses and stock, and which, when faced by a pandemic crisis, revealed all its weaknesses. However, this production through functionalization and the instrumentalization of language is undoubtedly something that on the one hand marks and distinguishes this new capitalism, and, on the other, forms the basis for its undoing.
For example, we are witnessing the considerable spread of new forms of remote work, which is one of the main challenges posed by the current situation. This change in the way we work indisputably brings benefits, such as reduced mobility, but also problems, which once again are related to language and communication.
When language becomes a fundamental factor of production, the distinction between work and private life is narrowed. Language is actually a work tool that accompanies us at all times and affects our physical dimension, our free time, our homes, our emotional relationships, and our privacy.
Today, working via and while communicating is taken even further in its remote form, highlighting additional potential problems in the choice of its terminology. In Italy, for example, remote working is referred to with the pseudo-anglicism ‘smart working’ as if all forms of physical work were less intelligent. The greatest risk is that, semantically, from an operational mode we move to discrimination, which would be added to gender discrimination and linked to hierarchy and forms of insecurity, something else bound up with post-Fordist capitalism.
The new forms of power are therefore increasingly fueled by multi-directional communication, even in the most classic sense of the term, as has emerged for example in relation to the dissemination of scientific data during this period. Power itself is veering towards the increasingly intelligent use of forms of knowledge that enable the government of society. The debate on the relationship between crises, health measures and power is therefore very complex, and it is therefore mistaken to focus excessively on one of these aspects. It would perhaps be more appropriate to find a balance, because we cannot manage a society attacked by a virus without a series of measures that have implications in the domain of control and surveillance, so we will have to get accustomed to operating in this environment.”
How might this crisis influence fiscal policies and public spending?
CM: “One of the first effects of this crisis has been the increase in public expenditure to deal with the health emergency and labor crisis, implementing reduced forms of work, layoff measures and with subsidized loans to companies. These measures continue to be extended, because one of the characteristics of this crisis is its haphazard nature, and the impossibility of predicting its duration. It is also shifting geographically and geopolitically, for example across Brazil, South America and North America, so these public spending measures are set to increase after ten years of austerity policies that certainly have not helped to cope with the health crisis, given the cuts also dealt to the health sector.
The increase in public spending and investment has led to a frightening increase in debt. For this reason, too, only the central banks are in a position to cope with this increase in public expenditure. If they were to leave the task to the financial markets alone, as has been done in the past, there would be a struggle between those who manage to attract capital and those who do not, the spread would be difficult to control.
Even after the 2007 crisis, using what are called ‘quantitative’ policies, meaning the purchase by central banks of public bonds, the central banks had implemented measures to offset the austerity policies of that particular period in an attempt to avoid stagnation and the squeeze on demand. However, very often this liquidity, instead of supporting the real economy, ended up on the financial markets, inflating them and significantly intensifying inequalities, because obviously people in a position to invest, or the holders of other people’s credit or debt, benefited from this financial inflation.
Today the outcomes may be similar, if not worse, as a result of the increase in quantitative easing policies generated by the increase in government bonds. If all this is necessary—and probably inevitable—in order to find ways out of the crisis, we must also take into account the worsening inequalities and their social tensions. In the recent past, the tensions that have given new vitality to populist and sovereignist forces were related to the harmful effects of globalization, such as the loss of work and purchasing power during the last twenty years.
These monetary policies therefore risk increasing inequalities, partly through this explicit guarantee communicated by means of performance statements by the presidents of the various central banks, which are now prepared to buy toxic bonds to avoid triggering a systemic or financial crisis.
The increase in inequalities generates social tensions and revolts, which might be termed post-populist, through the many and transversal phenomena that explode, even if originating in specific contingent events, giving vent to a tension, an anger, a frustration accumulated transversally by society.”
How well do you think economic studies are able to anticipate future scenarios?
CM: “This crisis is linked to a virus that has had an unprecedented disruptive effect, being at the same time a kind of instant, like a snapshot, but a lasting instant, that radiates a light across time, and which, as such, prepares us for a subsequent event, a subsequent moment that will in turn last.
We are somehow disoriented within this temporal dimension composed of individual moments of the present, the here and now, in some ways in the sense argued by Walter Benjamin, that is to say of the revolutionary now-time, because on each occasion we are faced with the perspective of a revolution, not in the Leninist or Enlightenment meaning of the term, but in the sense of a twisting of established data. Here-and-nows that call into question different hypotheses of future scenarios, but which also appear as an instant-that-lasts and that define a time in terms of continuity.
The feeling we have is that things are unchanging, even from the linguistic point of view and lexical evolution, for example, on the subject of the “return to normality” that led humanity in the direction of wild anomaly. What is surprising is the resistance to change in certain behaviors, combined with the impossibility of assimilating attitudes that arise in an emergency.
Something similar happens in the context of the financial markets, where individual behaviors are often crushed by imitative behaviors on account of our structural deficit in information, of our “lack of being,” as René Girard used to say, thus we always need to consider others, to exist fully in society’s collective dimension. Also, from the point of view of the financial markets, where bonds require a collective dimension in order to be resold, people are slaves to the logic of “lack of being,” which affects the individual dimension and encourages the development of imitative behaviors that turn others into our competitors. By making the same choices, the individual who prevails will be the one who has most power to take advantage of the logics of imitation, competition and investment in the same bonds.
Alternative forms of compensation to this structural deficit are required, to ensure that imitation does not necessarily imply rivalry, but an alliance in the search for fullness in life, which needs to be materially defined—otherwise it would involve a kind of marginalization—and must allow us to exist fully within society.”
With regard to the oppositional value inherent in the play on words “debt/depth,” how can we apply the category of depth, which is unrelated to the graphic standards of representation of economic trends, with respect to new forms of capitalism and their capillary development that affects the corporal dimension of people?
CM: “Analysis of the ultra-expansionary monetary policies of the pandemic crisis shows that we are confronted by the dilemma posed by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals (1887) concerning the origin of money, or rather of debt, which is how money comes into circulation. When Nietzsche explains the origin of guilt, he uses the German word Schuld to demonstrate the very close connection between guilt and debt (which means both “guilt” and “debt”), a relationship so intimate that it authorizes the strong, i.e. the creditors, to inflict the worst penalties on the weak, that is to say the debtors.
In some cases—think of Greece—the policies of austerity implemented by the troika, partly by dint of this semantic association, have had devastating effects on the people.
This endless emanation of liquidity is perhaps an opportunity to redefine the concept of debt, and free it from the idea of guilt. In the financial markets, the term “moral hazard” is used when an individual, unaffected by the possible negative economic consequences of a risk, behaves differently than if he were to withstand them.
However, this questioning of the link between debt and guilt is rendered more difficult by the widespread idea that an individual who does not earn money is at fault, since this logic is pervasive and difficult to eradicate.
In this regard, the pandemic crisis has revived the question of an unconditional income for all citizens because, until now, what we have seen in Italy is more like forms of unemployment benefits linked to conditions that once again bring with them a sense of guilt.
As for the issue of debt and depth, surface has been one of the key metaphors of post-Fordism. Even the most recent European philosophical tradition has considered crossing at surface-level to be an alternative mode of being deep, but in many cases, through a process of vulgarization, the idea of surface has produced a series of disvalues, making opportunism, cynicism and fear into actual professional skills.
Opportunistic individuals manage to have a more immediate relationship with opportunity, regardless of the price to be paid in ethical terms, whereas cynics move indifferently from one system of rules to another, beyond the constraints imposed by a moral aspect. In both cases, these dynamics can be described in terms of a surface-level crossing that does not admit obstacles that exist inherently in the dimension of depth. The third disvalue, fear, is that emotional tone that allows elements to be held together that would otherwise be incompatible, such as the negation of the values of solidarity and effectiveness in the workplace.
On the contrary, depth implies a reference to the body of the individual, thanks especially to the centrality in this crisis of a virus that directly attacks it, penetrating the body and causing an introspective mindset. It thus becomes crucial to reconfigure the rules of the interaction between bodies, highlighting the problem of redefining the idea of a collective body in our current situation, as well as its possibility. There is nothing deeper than one’s own body, whose perversions determine its behaviors, and the virus exemplifies a global collective behavior that has stressed the environment, because our behavior, when analyzed in depth, is sick.