Great economic crises like the one we are currently going through do not come from just anywhere at any time; they are stuffed with history. They are crises of the ethos of capitalism.
When Max Weber singled out Calvinism as the origin of modernity, he was wrong to focus exclusively on the Protestant ethic, but right to uncover a collective moral commitment that stood behind market mechanisms. With the war of 1914–18, however, the careful, thrifty bourgeois gave way to the panicking, spendthrift bourgeois. “The war has disclosed the possibility of consumption to all and the vanity of abstinence to many,” observed John Maynard Keynes in 1920. “The labouring classes may be no longer willing to forgo so largely, and the capitalist classes, no longer confident of the future, may seek to enjoy more fully their liberties of consumption so long as they last.” Later, the rise of totalitarianisms black and red brought about the emergence of a bourgeoisie conscious of its own finitude. Like the New Deal, the European idea of a socially regulated market economy was a response to the threat, represented by Hitler and Stalin, of the extinction of fundamental freedoms.
Then, with the collapse of Communism, a fourth evolution: the bourgeoisie for whom saying is doing. The Berlin Wall had fallen—long live the new, reconciled world! The new ethic left all fears and reproaches behind and embraced a postmodern credo claiming that all devils were dead. The market economy has always relativized goods, by revealing their exchangeability, and the Good, by tolerating its multiplicity. But our age is the first to proclaim the power to reduce risk to zero simply by spreading it around. It is the smiling reign of “positive thinking”—with ultimately disastrous effects.
What led to the current crisis was not so much a faulty financial technique that we might promise to control from now on, that is, but the general state of mind that allowed its unchecked use. Capitalism, we should have remembered, involves at once prudent regulation and the imprudent transgression of old rules, the sharing of risks and the audacity to risk more successfully than others. Economic progress is not peaceful; it is always alternating between creation and destruction, as old productive forces are left behind and new sources of wealth explode. But after the end of the Cold War, the promise of a pacified world seemed to announce the blessing of a postmodern history without challenges, without conflict, and without tragedy, a history in which you could get away with anything. We are reaping the consequences of an excess of confidence, suffering for lack of a Cassandra.
The speculative bubble was based on a bet that served as its own foundation. It was “performative,” in the terminology of the linguistic philosopher John Austin. “This session is now open,” proclaims the president in an assembly. It’s true because he says it: here reality is based on speech, while in ordinary cases speech is based on reality—that is, it is not performative but indicative. Similarly, the financial bubble, piling credit on top of credit, got rich on self-affirmation. It was contained in its self-relation, which is what made it a bubble. It gradually eliminated the principle of reality: nothing counted but the financial products invented by people’s investments.
The fantasy of omnipotence animated not only the trader but also those who let him go his way; not only the heads of financial institutions but also the political, academic, and media authorities who saw no problem with any of it. Indeed, the performative ideology—“It is true because we say it is”—has governed the Westernization of the planet since the end of the Cold War: because the enemy camp disintegrated, the future belonged to us, and all fundamental dangers vanished.
Postmodernism, which places itself “beyond good and evil,” beyond true and false, inhabits a cosmic bubble. It would be a good thing if fear of a universal crisis allowed us to burst the mental bubble of postmodernism—if it washed away the euphoria of our pious wishes and brought us once again to see straight. That may be no more than another pious wish. But we should not succumb, as so many did in the 1920s, to a catastrophic sensibility. Yes, history is tragic, as Aeschylus and Sophocles knew. And yes, it is as stupid as set forth in Aristophanes or Euripides. No roll of the dice and no act of God or of mathematically refined finance can abolish chance, corruption, or adversity; the providence of the stock market cannot save us any more than that of the state. Let these lines from Plato be inscribed at the entryway to future G-20 meetings: “Is there not one true coin for which all things ought to be exchanged?—and that is wisdom.”