SPECULATIVE POPULISM – from the third issue of 'Arts of the Working Class': RESTLESS TOGETHERNESS

  • 31.10.2018

10 years after the global financial crash of 2008, the ascent of what is broadly described as ‘financialisation’ of everyday life continues apace. At the same time, the ‘cosmopolitan’ variants of neoliberalism that had previously dominated Western politics are in dramatic retreat, and an ethno-nationalist populist tide is on the rise. As Benedict Anderson would put it “the end of the era of nationalism, so long prophesised, is not remotely in sight”. Political and social scientists often discuss the growing convergence of these two trends, financialisation and nationalist-populism, as a ‘paradox’. If finance is inherently ‘global’, transcending and eluding the national boundaries so revered by populist movements, what explains the distinctly pro-finance type of today’s populist nationalism and its growing public appeal, from Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia, to Erdogan’s Turkey, Duterte’s Philippines and Modi’s India? Why do those most affected by years of continuing market de-regulation come to endorse the finance-driven, populist agendas that further expose them to the risks and the debt dependencies suffered in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis?

Explanations of this paradox tend to follow the logic of Polanyi’s famous ‘double movement’: according to such accounts, the dominance of neoliberal logic drives the rise of a fragmented society of restless subjects, whose anxiety and grievances become fuel in the fire of reactionary, authoritarian and populist collective ‘movements’ such as the Tea Party. Yet such a view is problematic, for it often assumes an artificial divide between social actors and their own desires (with notions such as ‘cognitive dissonance’ or ‘false consciousness’ used to explain this divide). It moreover marks a symbolic distinction between the ‘cold’, calculating rationality of financial markets on the one hand, and the ‘emotional’ nature of publics’ responses to this rationality, a ‘restlessness’ that is often manifest in rage and anger.

Against this backdrop, I would like to suggest a different view for understanding this urgent phenomenon. Today’s convergence of ‘markets’ and ‘publics’, of financial and populist futures, marks the rise of a new political subject in capitalist society, which we may call homo speculans. Unlike homo oeconomicus (the ‘rational-choice’, ‘entrepreneurial’ actor of market economy), homo speculans relies on social, moral and emotional bonds in order to engage with the profound uncertainty of our financial times.

Much like derivative traders, members of new populist movements accept the inherent indeterminacy of the future, throwing themselves into the ‘speculative moment’: the unknown (and possibly chaotic) futures that may follow a populist vote are seen, from this perspective, less as a risk and more as an opportunity. Years of everyday exposure to the risk logic of financialisation (from dealing with fluctuating housing/mortgage markets to the abstracting algorithms of social search platforms, and the data-driven speculation of dating apps) have nursed and trained a ‘speculative imagination’ that has embraced radical uncertainty as a mode of life.

Crucially, embracing uncertainty in here rather different to merely embracing risk, as the latter implies some sort of calculable outcome, while the former centres on total unpredictability. In the case of finance, this type of volatile uncertainty becomes the premise of speculation for profitable investment (derivative markets, for instance, require and generate radical uncertainty in order to operate). In broader society, the speculative mode of life appears in the awareness of our collective inability to control the future – a realization of the unsettling side of its ontological openness, and a skepticism about the determinist solutions offered by ‘experts’ in (neo)liberal politics.

Importantly however, such speculative mode of existence is distinctly relational: ‘To speculate’ means today increasingly ‘to connect’; to endorse indeterminacy pre-emptively as a means of social survival, rather than a passive response to the future’s uncertainty. This becomes possible through shared populist narratives that revive a nationalist myth – in this way, skepticism and anxiety on the individual level is balanced by the shared myths generated in the ‘speculative community’, strengthening the cultural bond among its members. This approach allows us to understand the aforementioned ‘paradox’ in entirely different terms. Against reductive accounts of both finance and populism, critical theories of capitalism today must recognize financialisation as a dynamic force, capable of mobilizing new vernacular social imaginations in the face of uncertainty: relational practices of (self-) representation, valuation and anticipation, which affirm the speculative logic of finance, but also, importantly, form a collective narrative, which allows us to remain restless together.


Read more on 'Arts of the Working Class' Issue 3: RESTLESS TOGETHERNESS'