Financialization — crisis, stagnation and inequality

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By CARLOS VAINER*

Considerations about the recently released book, organized by Lena Lavinas, Norberto Montani Martins, Guilherme Leite Gonçalves and Elisa Van Waeynberge

1.

Posting Financialization: crisis, stagnation and inequality, is, without a doubt, an event of the greatest importance, both from an editorial, intellectual, theoretical and political point of view.

An editorial event, firstly, because it is an impressive collection, which, in 1338 pages, brings together 35 chapters that deal, with different perspectives and approaches, in a broad and almost exhaustive way, the multiple dimensions of the complex process of financialization of economy, and therefore the daily lives of our people. There is no way not to congratulate the tour de force of the editors, who mobilized no less than 66 authors to present, always carefully and clearly, the results of their research.

I don't remember a collection of this size and value in our recent editorial experience. Those who have ventured into bringing together works by colleagues in a collection can certainly imagine the effort it took to discipline authors to follow the same standard of text organization, with introductions, sections and final considerations – all with more or less the same dimensions. Without a doubt, an editorial event.

But, much more than that, this book constitutes, already at its launch, a milestone in the debate on the Brazilian economy and, beyond that, a milestone in the debate on Brazilian capitalism, on Brazilian capitalist society in the 21st century. And when I talk about capitalist society, I'm not just talking about the forms of production and appropriation of social wealth, which range from the production and circulation of goods to the capture of value through the individual and collective indebtedness of the entire population - particularly the most poor; I am also talking about the forms of relationship between Capital-State-Society, the forms and ways of living, the forms of sociability and subjectivation of social processes and practices, the forms of exploitation, domination and oppression that are reproduced on an expanded scale, renewed and, in a sense, they are revolutionized by financialization.

Certainly, this is not the first book, nor are these the first articles produced, here and abroad, on financialization. By the way, it should be noted that, throughout the reading of the chapters, there are numerous and relevant bibliographical references for those who want to delve deeper into this or that aspect of the problem. Personally, my contact with the debate had been mainly with the discussion of what can be called the financialization of cities – urban financialization and urbanization of finance.

My references were the works of Mariana Fix, Raquel Rolnik, Paula Santoro and Luciana Royer. Furthermore, I had already had access to works by Leda Paulani and Lena Lavinas – of the latter, especially her contribution to the critique of the financialization of social policies. All these authors, please note, are present in the collection with works of the greatest relevance. After reading the book, however, I realized how incomplete and poor the picture I had about the dimension, relevance and ubiquity of financialization in contemporary Brazilian society was. And I believe that this statement applies to the vast majority of my colleagues in the social sciences, not to mention activists in social movements and unions.

Right from the start, I want to note an issue that seems to me to increase the value of this book. At a time when important Latin American thinkers, such as Anibal Quijano, Arturo Escobar, Enrique Lander, Walter Mignolo, Rita Segato, Enrique Dussel, Agustín Lao-Monte, among others, place at the center of our reflection the multiple forms of the coloniality of knowledge and power, calling us to invest in the construction of decolonial critical thinking, I believe that this work makes a huge contribution to the search for ways to fulfill this theoretical program... which is also political and cultural.

This is a contribution from Brazilian researchers who, without closing themselves off from dialogue with critical thinking from central countries, engage in research and reflection on our reality and in this root the production of new, original knowledge, both about nature and dynamics of contemporary capitalism on an international scale, as well as the unique forms it takes in peripheral and dependent countries like ours.

I think it is important to warn anyone who decides to read the book after reading this review that they will not find any template or ready-made recipe on “how to criticize financialization”. In fact, throughout the chapters there are perspectives that are not always convergent, approaches that are not completely aligned and even divergent visions of what has happened in the last 20 years – for example, with regard to assessments, not always explicit, of the place and role of governments led by the Workers' Party in the process of financialization.

This diversity does not seem to me to be a defect, on the contrary, it constitutes a quality, to be valued all the more as we live in a moment in which, in an inexplicable way, the academic-scientific community has often responded to the call to be “well behaved”. theoretically and politically and, in this way, impoverished the healthy and necessary frank and open confrontation of ideas.

In the vast field of themes and issues covered in the 35 chapters, and despite their diversity, it is possible to identify several important converging or consensual points. Below I highlight some that seem to me to be the most important.

2.

In general, authors agree that, understood as a multidimensional and multiscalar process and dynamics, financialization affirms the growing domination of the economy and markets in general by capitals and agents in search of financial gains through more or less detached procedures and practices. of the production and effective circulation of goods-commodities. In other words, we are talking about the subordination of production and circulation processes to the generation of financial gains/income outside, or at the margin, of commodity production processes.

It is true that interest-bearing capital and fictitious capital, as well as the search for income from property and not from production, had already been treated by Marx in sections V and VI of book III of The capital. Just as financial capital had already been studied by Rudolph Hilferding in a 1910 book, not casually titled Financial capital, decisive, in fact, for Lenin to publish, six years later, his famous Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.

However, as Norberto Montani Martins, in chapter 1, and Leda Paulani, in chapter 2, as well as several other chapters, competently and clearly show, contemporary financialization has its own characteristics, dimensions and forms. It would certainly not be the place of this review to develop this question, but it should serve as an invitation, yet another, to read the book.

It is also more or less consensual among authors that financialization asserts itself as the dominant route and form of capital with the advance of neoliberalism. In other words, neoliberal capitalism is financialized capitalism. This means that privatization practices and policies, suppression of labor rights euphemistically called “flexibility” of legislation, changes in social security rules, PPPs, concessions of public services to private companies – often themselves under the control of financial funds of various types – , all of this is inseparable and constitutive of financialized capitalism.

Likewise, policies of so-called “fiscal austerity”, control of public spending, including social security considered “excessively wasteful”, are part of this paradoxical nationalized promotion of “privatization”. Presence of the State in promoting institutional, legal and economic bases, for example through the mobilization of public funds. This presence played a decisive role in the advances of neoliberalism and financialization, as well as in its support, expansion, universalization and consequent transition to what, for some, can be considered a new phase of capitalism – financial capitalism, debt economy or another name that if you want to give it to him.

Associated with and resulting from this permanent and systematic action by the State, there is the ubiquity of financialization, which spreads and starts to control the various sectors of the economy, macroeconomic and sectoral policies and, as expected, multiple territories – from the Consortium Urban Operation Água Espraiada in the São Paulo metropolis to Matopiba, still seen as a frontier region for agricultural expansion, but which is evident as a territory already subjected to the logic and dynamics of financialization.

There is also widespread agreement, even where financialization processes are discussed in different sectors – education, health, agriculture, etc. – that, although at different paces and forms, under the aegis and consistent support of the State, financialization advanced rapidly in the first 20 years of the century – 2000 to 2020.

Neoliberalism and financialization are responsible for the growing concentration of wealth and the sharp increase in inequalities, more serious in peripheral and dependent countries like ours, already deeply unequal, than in central countries, where post-war social pacts had favored a relative reduction of inequalities. Whether due to the increase in inequalities, the growing debt of families, or collective debt, a universal phenomenon in central and peripheral countries, financialization will have enormous consequences on the “factory of social life” (Paulani).

Thus, we are witnessing the financialization of the modes of consumption and the ways of life of the working classes, the poor – that is, the vast majority. It is the life of individuals and families who, deprived of access to public services that have been privatized, impoverished and precarious, go into debt to access basic goods previously provided by the public sector or even to complete a family budget insufficient to cover current consumption expenses. basic.

In this sense, as Lavinas and Mader show, the data on the indebtedness of poor families are tragic, implying an increase in exploitation, which takes place through the capture of an increasing part of family income through debt services – amortization and interest. We are talking about the appropriation of a growing portion of income from 75% of families that are in debt.

This gives rise to what Pedro Rubin, in his chapter, calls “debt poor”, that is, those who are not poor because they are below the “poverty line”, whatever that line may be, but are very poor when service with amortization and interest on debts contracted is deducted from your income. An extreme but illustrative acute case is that of students who are in debt because, when they are unable to access public higher education, which, moreover, as we know, is that which has some quality, they go into debt to enroll in courses, whether face-to-face or, increasingly further, the distance from the few educational corporations that oligopolize the higher education market (75% of enrollments in private institutions).

3.

This quick and quite incomplete list of consensual or convergent points from the various chapters is enough to confront some myths that feed economic and political thinking about what neoliberalism is and its forms of updating in economic, social and political life.

The first and perhaps most harmful myth is that neoliberalism promotes the minimal state. Now, this is to believe that the utopian neoliberalism of theorists is the really existing neoliberalism. Nothing more wrong. And the issue becomes more serious when sectors that intend to place themselves in the field of the theoretical and political left adhere to and promote the myth – positioning themselves as defenders of the state and critics of what would be its reduction, when, in fact, what is at stake It is not the size of the State but the nature and form of the relationships it establishes with society and, of course, with capital and, above all, with rentier, financial capital.

In fact, there are many chapters that provide empirical evidence of an activist state, interventionist to the extreme... but not in the forms of activism and intervention that were known under the hegemony of the Keynesian consensus and, among us, of national-developmentalism. After all, “what liberals aim for is not a minimal State, but a State free from the influence of class struggle, the pressure of social demands and the expansion of social rights” (Lazzarato, 2017:51).

Another idea for which the book contributes to demystifying concerns the nature and consequences of the so-called “democratization of credit” or “democratization of consumption through access to credit”, “financial or banking inclusion”, “financial citizenship” or other expressions. What is clear is that this “financial inclusion” has subjugated tens of millions of individuals and families to financial expropriation, largely due to what Lena Lavinas and Guilherme Leite Gonçalves call “assetization” (I would suggest calling it patrimonialization) of social policies.

For example, the evidence is shocking that a non-negligible portion of the income transferred to the poorest families during the pandemic ended up in the pockets of creditors, as families prioritized paying off their debts... with the pragmatic and inevitable objective of getting out of the negative register and able to take out new loans.

Another myth that is dispelled is that the advance of neoliberalism-financialization resulted from the application of government policies under center, center-right or right-wing governments. Now, all chapters are unanimous in stating that financialization advanced in an accelerated and widespread manner in the first two decades of the century, that is, in a period in which, for 16 years, the country was governed by political-party coalitions led by the PT, considered to be left-wing or at least center-left. It is therefore worth asking: were those who conducted economic and social policies during these 16 years aware of what they were promoting with their monetary, fiscal, exchange rate and sectoral policies? Did they envision the consequences of the processes in which they engaged?

This delicate, but inevitable, issue is very lightly brought up in the chapter, excellent by the way, by Sérgio Leite, on the financialization of land and agriculture. After showing a series of actions and policies to promote financialization, he records that the exhaustion (real or simulated, it doesn't matter here) of traditional sources of financing resulted in the “structuring of a new financialized framework, making clear the differentiation between financing and financialization , not always understood by the central actors in this game”.

Could it be that, in fact, these agents did not always understand the game they were playing? Could it be that, just as Molière's bourgeois gentleman wrote prose without knowing it, our leaders carried out financialization without knowing it? In this case, should they be considered “culpable financializers”, and not intentional ones, because they carried out financialization without the intention of financializing?

Certainly, I am not intending to establish any court of history, but I want to defend the need to rigorously carry out a discussion that should help us explore theoretical and political paths that contribute to building alternatives to what we have today. After all, as Maurizio Lazzarato (2017) reminds us, history is made by those who go against the “natural” course of things, and not by those who insert themselves into the current and bet on the illusion of being able to redirect it.

4.

The third and final point that I highlight is not explicitly addressed by any chapter, but it seems impossible to leave it aside, as it concerns the more or less tacit acceptance, on the part of the academic community and not a few combative militants, of a coexistence peaceful and passive with a certain intellectual and political environment that makes it difficult to reflect and discuss publicly, critically, with rigor and depth, the policies of the governments led by the PT.

I refer to the freezing, or blocking, of the discussion about the nature of the contemporary state and capitalism in Brazilian society and about the construction of alternatives. We read and heard important intellectuals, as well as political leaders, advocate a neo-developmentalism that, this time, would be accompanied by social justice and environmental responsibility. And when they do not “advance” (or “retreat”) towards the developmentalism of the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing thinkers return to the also anachronistic thought, further to the left but not therefore more promising, of dependency theories.

I do not intend to deny or ignore that, at the time, more progressive developmentalism and dependency theories constituted important efforts to think about peripheral countries and Brazil outside the framework of dominant thought in central countries. In this direction, the original developmentalism of the 1950s and 1960s inspired a national project: a developed and autonomous capitalism in the periphery, which, through industrialization and redefinition of the terms of exchange, would overcome what they saw as “structural dualism” and integrate the masses to the world of capitalism and mass consumption.

What is the project now? Is there any national project that goes beyond economic growth, accompanied by some income transfer and poverty reduction policies? I prefer to call it growthism, as its formulation does not deserve to be compared to that produced by the intellectual courage to think outside the canons that characterized the original developmentalists – such as Raúl Prebisch, Osvaldo Sunkel, and, perhaps most of all, Celso Furtado.

If we leave aside neodevelopmentalism and its project of updating an already defeated theoretical program and political project, we must recognize the poverty of the production of those who intend to rescue theories from dependencies – important at their time as an effort to build a theory from from the periphery, but they were also unable to realize that capitalism, indeed, had chances of developing the so-called “productive forces” and could offer peripheral and dependent countries a path that would not be that of development in the image of central countries, such as they correctly pointed out, but neither would they be stagnation or socialism, as they diagnosed or dreamed. Neodependentism also owes much to the restlessness and historiographical and theoretical efforts of authors such as Teotônio dos Santos, Rui Mauro Marini, Vania Bambirra, among others.

In an intellectual context dominated by neo-developmentalism without a national project and by neo-dependence without a post-capitalist horizon, it is not surprising that financialization is left aside, as taking it as a central theme would require not only reviewing theoretical assumptions but also, and perhaps above all, , rigorously evaluate government policies that strengthen the financial colonization of economic and social life, succumbing to large international – financial – corporations.

I align these quick reflections, or provocations, to reinforce that the book constitutes an admirable contribution to breaking a blockage, which is theoretical, but also political and ideological. I think, believe and hope that, after this book, we will no longer be able to avoid discussion, nor continue to be attached to anachronistic theories and projects, helping to break a kind of “obsequious silence” that ends up stifling intellectual, theoretical and political debate. … under the pretext of not giving weapons to the far-right enemy that stalks us and threatens us.

Like every great work, controversial by its very nature, the book invites debate, new studies and research. It would not make sense, in the face of a work of such scope, to talk about what is missing in the book. But perhaps it is worth asking the question in another way: what do we lack to cover financialization in Brazil in an even broader and more complete way. What paths need to be explored by research?

In a nutshell, I would say that we need to advance, a lot, in the sociology and anthropology of debt – of indebtedness. Leda Paulani speaks of financialization as a “life factory”; Now, it is necessary to discover and make this life visible. How does the vast majority of the population experience and perceive the daily reality of financialization, or, if one prefers, the financialization of everyday life?

This terrain is beginning to be explored by some research, such as, for example, the interesting works on the subjectivation processes of the so-called “positive registration” (Pereira, 2019) or on the experience of debt and debt management by teachers from Rio Grande do Sul (Martins and Hennigen, 2023). Also available are studies on student debt in the USA, rich Latin American literature and research that, following the work of Maurizio Lazzarato, seeks to shed light on the processes of subjectivation of new forms of domination and exploitation of what he, instead of financialized capitalism, prefers to call it capitalism or debt economy.

Lazzarato (2017) himself reminds us that the political project of neoliberalism is to make each individual an individual company, to establish a company inside each person's body, dividing the social fabric itself into individuals. Which is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s true curse, or prophecy: “Who is society? There is no such thing, what there are are men and women, individuals and families” (Tatcher, 1987).

How is the entrepreneurship of individuals, their bodies, their hearts and minds? What power mechanisms and devices, disseminated throughout the social fabric, are operating? How to incorporate into our concerns the unveiling of transformations in pedagogies and educational processes that shape “indebted subjectivity” while at the same time shedding light on the “formative power of debt” (Wozniak, 2015, 2017) – education for debt and education for the debt.

We have a long way to go in research, reflection and intellectual and political debate. Financialization: crisis, stagnation and inequality It constitutes an irrefutable invitation and an inescapable roadmap for us to face the challenge.

*Carlos Vainer He is Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Urban and Regional Research and Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Reference


Lena Lavinas, Norberto Montani Martins, Guilherme Leite Gonçalves and Elisa Van Waeynberge (orgs.). Financialization: crisis, stagnation and inequality. São Paulo, Contracurrent, 2024, 1338 pages. [https://amzn.to/3Vm6yfu]

REFERENCES

Lazzarato, Maurizio. The government of the indebted man. São Paulo, n-1 Editions, 2017.

Martins, Evandro Sérgio Pacheco; Inês Hennigen. “Paid, I Don’t Deny. I Live When I Can”: Indebtedness, Precariousness d. Teaching Life and Neoliberal Governmentality. In: Knowledge and Diversity, v. 15, no. 36, 20023. Available at https://revistas.unilasalle.edu.br/index.php/conhecimento_diversidade/issue/view/384.

Pereira, Paula Cardodo. The ranking of indebted men: on modes of subjectivation based on the new Positive Registry. VI LAVITS International Symposium, Salvador, 2019. Available at https://lavits.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Pereira-2019-LAVITSS.pdf.

Thatcher, Margaret. Interview with Douglas Keay. In: Woman's own, October 1987. Available at https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689.

Wozniak, Jason. The Rhythm and Blues of Indebted Life: Notes on Schools and the Formation of the Indebted Man. In: Philosophy and Education, 2015. Available at (99+) The Rhythm and Blues of Indebted Life: Notes on Schools and the Formation of the Indebted Man | Jason T Wozniak – Academia.edu.

Wozniak, Jason. Towards a Rhythmanalysis of Debt Dressage: Education as Rhythmic Resistance in Everyday Indebted Life. In: Police Futures in Education, 15(4), June 2017.


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