Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy by Christian Marazzi. Translated by Gregory Conti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008. Pp. 180. $14.95 paper.
As an economic crisis of epic proportions continues to tear through global economies, Christian Marazzi's cogent postmortem on the dot-com crash of 2001 provides a number of salient critical tools for a cultural approach to finance and crisis. (1) Marazzi's autonomist Marxist (2) analysis--lucidly translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti--draws its conceit from outside the established parameters of economic inquiry: language. While his thought-provoking and broadminded book makes an original and important contribution to how we think about finance, it is regrettable that its English translation has been so long in coming and that we may have to wait just as long again for his insights on the current economic crisis.
Posing the capitalism of the erstwhile "New Economy" as in some way linguistic goes beyond a rhetorical gesture aimed at upsetting the hubristic hegemony of economics and its claims to scientific realism. Rather, for Marazzi, in an age of globalization, capital and language are intimately bound up on three interrelated levels (9). In the first place, the global web of financial transactions, the "real economy" (to which those financial transactions ostensibly refer) and everything in-between are increasingly held together by the fabric of language. From the linguistically saturated service sector to management of global supply chains to the vital role of the media and entertainment industries, language is economic like never before, underwriting the coordination of global flows (50).
Second, Marazzi suggests that financial conventions--the norms and codes by which something as sublimely complex as the international derivatives or futures markets can exist, flourish, and dominate the global economy--are networks of performative speech-acts that unify economic actors in a self-referential lingua-financial community (28-29, 33-36). Not only does this community rely heavily on communicative themes like trust, credit (credibility), and information, but financial instruments obtain value largely through performative acts where certain actors and institutions exercise the ability to shape perceptions and actions through the production of financial representation. For instance, a bond-rating firm's (3) pronouncement of a bundle of dubious subprime mortgages as "triple-A" in effect makes it so. Or, in different ways, the performative utterances (even the bodily comportment) of a central-bank chief can have a massive impact on national and international markets that "read" him.
These two relations between language and capital are underscored by a third, more profound and deeply ontological connection: in the post-Fordist New Economy, capital is no longer interested merely in extracting surplus value from workers in factories, as per the classical Marxist formulation. Rather, it has invested itself in all aspects of life as a global form of social control (4) marked by the cyborgian conflation of living (human) and dead (technological) labor across the social body. Consider, for instance, the case of the phone-sex worker who is paid by the hotline per call he or she receives at home--living and dead labor here cannot be easily separated. Less salaciously, the massive economic productivity of health, education, culture, and human-development sectors speaks to the way capital's circuit of value has decidedly escaped the factory and is increasingly invested in human bodies. In this phase of the real subsumption of labor under capital language--that syntax of human cooperation, that living fabric from which the social web is continuously spun--becomes the key terrain of struggle. Within this broader framework, finance's ability to redouble and coordinate money's power as a claim on future labor is haunted by fresh contradictions in whose face previous "fixes" (5) to capitalist contradictions are no longer reliable.
The project of Marazzi's book is to demonstrate how these three linguistic aspects of the New Economy can weave something like a global financial market--the scope, speed, and power of which are as unprecedented (6) as they …