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Intangibles, Virtuals and Financial Markets

Facing at least the partial nationalization of the financial system in the United States and United Kingdom, Will Hutton, a well known UK economic journalist, commented in the Guardian,

This is not the end of capitalism, as some wildly claim; there is no intellectual, social or political challenge to a market system based on respect for private property rights, even by the Chinese Communist party. Rather, it is a crisis of a particular capitalism that has set aside respect for trust, integrity and fairness as fuddy-duddy obstacles to ‘wealth generation’. What we are relearning is that without trust and fairness, capitalism risks its own sustainability, even while it unleashes forces that undermine those self-same values. London’s money markets froze because of a trust collapse; banks simply don’t believe each other when they say their businesses are sound and will not default on their obligations. Trust matters.

‘Trust’ is not an abstraction, nor a metaphysical object, nor something that can be used to hold up a table.  It is a virtuality – a real but intangible thing – and the economy has long been understood to be founded on exactly such virtualities.  Another example is ‘virtue’, a word which shares the same root.  Like virtue or character, virtualities generally relate to latent outcomes or potential.  They are entirely different from risk, which is related to calculations of what is probable, or to danger, when a risk is actualized as a material presence.

Hutton notes that opponents have ‘no alternative proposal about how to restore trust once it has gone. Trust is a reciprocal relationship, dependent upon a desire to be considered decent and honourable.’  Rather than focusing on the dollars of the bailout, the virtual question of reputation is much more difficult to restore.  It relates to the future – to the anticipation of continuity.  This requires repair in the virtual.  In simple terms, this means not rhetoric (which might repair representations) but rituals of closure of the crisis.  These rituals are likely to take the form of establishing watershed moments which set the period of leveraged capitalism behind us globally.  Expect shamans who lead us through the process and sacrificial figures (individuals, animals, corporations), liminal stages and zones with changes in location, and figures of rebirth.