Monday, September 22, 2008

Agency and Financial Crisis

Let's get this straight.  The current financial crisis that is said to make government action imperative is first and foremost a market crisis.  

For now, in any event, it is not a crisis in massive unemployment (though we have been in something like an employment crisis for some time); it is not a crisis in massive foreclosures (though we have been in a foreclosure crisis for some time); it is not an urban crisis (though many of our cities have been in crisis for some time); it is not a crisis in our infrastructure (though our infrastructure has been in crisis for some time); it is not a famine or a drought or a health epidemic (though we have seen our share of those in the past).  The current crisis is a crisis in our financial markets. Its most immediate potential victims are those individuals who work in the financial markets, those individuals with substantial investments in those financial markets, including those whose retirement funds are invested in the market, and the corporations that seek to profit from those financial markets.  

So, where does the current financial crisis derive such tremendous agency that it can prompt the US government (on behalf of the American taxpayers) to give something on the order of $1 trillion in aid to these markets to address this crisis, while other crises, like those mentioned above, are unable to garner even a fraction of the support that they need and deserve?

This might appear to be a ridiculously foolish question.  The agency garnered by this financial crisis is capital, is money--it's the economy, stupid! Of course. True enough, I suppose. But it is interesting to note the forms in which this monetary or economic damage manifests itself to the American public, to the average citizen of the US. So maybe a better way to phrase the question is this: how does the agency of the current financial crisis manifest itself in our media? 
At the current moment this agency manifests itself chiefly in non-stop media coverage and diminishing financial statements.  Or more accurately it manifests itself in the fear and trembling produced by the obsessive premediation of impending economic catastrophe in our print, televisual, and networked media. We turn on the TV and see anchors and politicians, economists and financiers, warning us about the impending financial catastrophe heralded by recent turbulence in the markets.  We hear about the billions of dollars in value that have been lost.  We see graphs of the recent financial past heading almost inevitably downwards into our financial future. We look at our 401Ks or our mutual funds or our e-portfolios and we see how much value they have lost. We see gas prices rising and "for sale" signs and foreclosed properties growing like mushrooms.  

So where does the agency of the market to prompt the federal government to hand over nearly $1 trillion to bail out Wall Street come from?  This agency, I would argue, in some sense comes from, participates in, the agency of premediation. The tone of this mediation is urgency. We are to be on the alert, to be concerned, and ultimately to be scared.  The agents that we should fear are called "the market" or "Wall Street" or "the Dow."  "The market will not be happy if too many limitations are put on this bailout." "Wall Street is worried that unless the Fed acts, more turbulence lies ahead."  "The Dow is demonstrating its concern about the terms of the bailout."  Not unlike the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods, these powerful creatures need to be feared and respected and pacified. The mediasphere is filled with the priests and votaries of these gods, warning the public of the danger that could come if they are angered or their will is flaunted.

What is at stake in the premediation of the current financial crisis is whether (to borrow the distinction currently in use by both Obama and McCain) it is Wall Street or Main Street who should be protected from the consequences of the current crisis of confidence in the financial markets.  At the present moment, the gods of Wall Street have a much greater share of the mediasphere than the crowds of Main Street. On Monday afternoon, the agency of Main Street had manifested itself chiefly in brief reports of taxpayers complaining about having to bail out Wall Street, with CNN quickly suggesting and moving away from the question of a populist revolt.  On Tuesday morning we are beginning to hear dissenting voices, not only in the liberal blogosphere but on the pages of our local and national newspapers and even on televisual news. 

But the gods of Wall Street are in turmoil and they are still at the present moment more powerful than the collective voices of Main Street. Only when the premediation of Main Street's agency begins to compete with the premediation of Wall Street's agency will it be possible to imagine an economic future in which the US government acts to bail out the overwhelming majority of the American public who are threatened by this financial crisis, not the minority of those whose investments and livelihoods depend upon the financial markets.    



pietro said...

but the crisis is a political one, no? Main street picking up the tab, and the complete lack of foresight and accountability that has been going for decades has a distinctly political dimension....which the Dems are slowly beginning to wake up after.

Richard Grusin said...

Yes, of course. What is interesting to me here, though, is the way in which the agency of the crisis is mediated, how it manages to mobilize the political responses we have witnessed over the past week or more. The market is granted a kind of agency akin to that of an angry demigod and it is this market agency that has moved both Dems and Republicans to act.