Currency and fake news

Image Elyeser Szturm

By Lucius Provase*

On March 31, 2006, José Serra announces that he will run for the position of Governor of the State of whose capital, São Paulo, he had been mayor for the last 15 months. On the occasion of the announcement of his resignation from office, he uttered the following words to justify the fact that, even having signed and notarized documents that he would not resign, he did so: “At that moment, I told the truth. Circumstances changed. At that moment there was no reason not to [sign]”[I].

Twelve years later, João Dória takes the same attitude. The mayor of the city of São Paulo resigns, even having signed a document registered with a notary saying he would not do so. The explanation before the act, however, marks a big difference between this and the other renouncer. Dória said that: “Signing a document or not signing a document has the same value, regardless of the document or not”[ii]. Evidently, like José Serra, João Dória later said that it was a call, that his candidacy was a demand from the people, among other explanations common to this type of situation.

Despite the cynicism[iii] From the statements of both, attention is drawn to the fact that, in the case of Dória, there was, at first, no attempt to relativize or deny the signed document, even if, like Serra, using the excuse of circumstances. Dória simply dismisses the existence of the document by saying that signing or not signing a commitment letter would have the same truth value.

Dória's behavior is explained by what I call here the loss of discursive ballast[iv]: without a common ground on which to build the experience, the speeches end up just expressing experiences. That is, it is not possible to construct what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus”, the disturbance of the sensible, the conflict over what this sensible is, a conflict between the forms of the sayable, of the visible. This fundamental tool of democratic construction, precisely because it rests on the principle of equality, becomes virtually impossible to build.

Without a ballast that sustains the common, contradictions cease to be an important point in the construction of politics, since they, the contradictions, imply a conflict of experiences. However, if what counts are the experiences[v], it becomes impossible to say that they are contradictory[vi]. This scenario, which produced an epistemological change and led us to a type of policy based on the construction of fake news and has been explained as “post-truth”, maintains a close relationship with the growing financialization of capital, to the point that the loss of discursive ballast can be related to the loss of financial ballast.

In what follows, I propose, precisely, to scrutinize this relationship and seek to demonstrate how the epistemological change is also a change in the economic functioning of the system in which we live. I advance that it is not a matter of returning to Karl Marx’s “base x superstructure” combination, but rather of thinking about how two symbolic systems, the economy and language, interpellate and transform each other at a time when the experience of the time has been reduced to the experience of the present.

The loss of ballast

The perception that there is a mismatch between lived time and historical time is a profound mark of a recent moment in human history that we call post-modernity.[vii]. Whether as a compression of space-time, in the perception of David Harvey, or an irrecoverable distance between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation (Reinhart Koselleck), thinking of the present with the regulating time of human experiences, and no longer the past (master history of life) or the future (progress, utopia, the future, the revolution), brutally modifies the way in which the symbolic elements of society, including discourse and money, function.

In the case of discourse, the excess of the present causes the loss of discursive ballast, which, in turn, makes it impossible to build a common space.[viii], again speaking to Rancière, who allows political and poetic activity to be the space of citizenship par excellence, since, without a common assumption, there is no room for dissent. Now, without a common time and with the present appearing as the only time for the construction of the experience, a dangerous inversion takes place: what was previously an experience, the experience that can be shared, becomes pure experience, the experience in its individuality.

This is because the present without mediation does not allow the discursive accumulation, the minimum common multiple, necessary for the perception of contradictions, continuities, divisions and distances between what is said and what is said, between enunciation and enunciation. The demand for the real, the insistence on brands that, in some way, give support and “truth” to the discourse[ix], as well as a clear epistemological change in the way the public arena is organized are all consequences of this scenario.

However, the loss of discursive ballast was not only caused by the “presentism” that has been establishing itself since the 1970s. As in the case of another fundamental symbolic foundation for the contemporary world, currency, discourse had its ballast eroded by “ hypersemiotization”: the symbolic system starts to operate with more fluid referents, transforming itself into a self-referenced system, in addition to functioning in a set of rules that only applies to predetermined contexts.

This was facilitated by the way in which naturally hypersemiotic discursive regimes, such as advertising, law and art itself, at least art in its path since the 1920s, produced objects that accelerated this corrosion. Still, as in the case of currency, whose ballast abandonment made it become a self-referential symbolic system, language gradually, with the loss of its ballast, took care of itself.

The relationship I try to establish here, however, even though it may seem like that, is not one of cause and effect, in which advertising, art and law would come first, then the loss of ballast. It is a concomitant process, with this hypersemiotization reinforcing a historical process of loss of ballast.

Let us first look at the specific case of advertising. It is possible to say that this links the language to a false symbology, since it depends on a material referentiality whose operating axis is the symbolic language itself that results from the process of “referencing”. That is, its functioning is tautological also at the symbolic level. Jean Baudrillard uses the metaphor of a system without syntax. He also sees that advertising establishes a universal code, status. That is why, at first sight, it may seem that advertising establishes a ballast, however the type of referentiality used by this system, which could produce a common ballast for the discourse, as it is tautological, creates a void that reaffirms itself.

The unstable ballast, which is based on a supposed objectivity of materiality by itself, inverting the equation of Western thought: it is the object, now, who defines the subject, regardless of the context, in a movement that equates form and content. This hypersemiotization causes the advertising language to spin falsely from an alleged objectivity of the linguistic materiality of its signs. Combined with the excess of the present, we have a fundamental element in the loss of discursive ballast. The presence of advertising makes us get used to a use of language that is independent of negotiation with other symbolic systems. That set of symbolic values ​​expressed in an advertisement does not need other symbolic values ​​to be taken as truth.

The prevalence of law in everyday life, the judicialization of life, is another point linked to the loss of discursive ballast. The legal language presents itself, from its form, with an alleged hyper-objectivity, even for being the language without an author par excellence. The legal subject-function, whether occupied by a judge, a judge, a lawyer, is the subject who enunciates in the absence of subjectivity.

The voices that speak for this pure objectivity that is the subject of legal enunciation cannot occupy the place of subject, because, unlike literary language, legal language rejects the occupation of the voice. This false absence, as the voice is indeed occupied, creates an atmosphere whose loss of ballast is a presupposition. Again, a materiality is created, which, far from showing itself as a solid referent, is also tautological.[X], refers only to itself.

The arts constitute a third area of ​​investigation. The expansion of the imaginary promoted by the plastic arts, especially throughout the 1950th century, makes the appreciation of a work of art confined to its circulation space: museums, galleries, collectors. From Marcel Duchamp's urinal, to performances, passing through American art of the XNUMXs, pop and op-art, Jeff Koons and his contemporaries, Damien Hirst, Adriana Varejão[xi], Cindy Sherman there are many examples of how this elasticity in the concept of art directly affects aesthetic perception, something that becomes evident when art leaves the already institutionalized spaces of meaning production (and sometimes even in these)[xii]. The immediate discursive effect is the idea that anything can and anything goes. The defense of a common aesthetic perception becomes increasingly difficult, and unnecessary, without the ethical-political spectrum having managed to keep up with this differentiation.

This process that I briefly described coincides with what we call modernity and takes place throughout the XNUMXth century, with the loss and/or abandonment of another important ballast: the financial [xiii]. Just as the discourses above contributed to the ballast that supported the possibility of building a common and, therefore, a dissent, the advance of currency without ballast allowed different monetary discourses to grow and advance. And, as with the speeches, the hypersemiotization of the coin made this symbolic figure the target of an epistemological dispute.

A beginning right at the end – the 2008 crisis as an example of economic performativity

The loss of discursive ballast is a process that takes place along what we are used to calling modernity. The same happens with capital: the process of adopting the ballast[xiv] as a way of measuring the value of a currency, it was only widely accepted and used during the same period that we call modernity, since it depended on a legal apparatus that only the nation-state could offer.[xv]; at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, it was also the period that saw the gradual abandonment of this way of dealing with currency, at least as a globally shared tool.

The discussion behind the adoption or not of a ballast for the currency is directly related to the function of its neutrality or not in the economy. Neutrality is understood as the fact that the currency would only affect the nominal variables (price, exchange rate, wages) while the real variables (GDP, employment, consumption, etc.) would be outside the reach of any variation in the currency. It depends on this that the three functions attributed to money, namely, medium of exchange, store of value and unit of account, would be the only possible ones to be fulfilled by a given materialization of this good.

Behind this process lies the great gap in macroeconomic theories: what is a currency?[xvi]? Although it seems absurd to those outside of economic studies, the grand macroeconomic theories do not present a solid proposition about what a currency is in economics.[xvii]. This is largely due to the naturalization of a certain idea of ​​money, which sees money as an object. Such naturalization generated myths that, even today, prevail in the conduct of macroeconomic policies.

Tcherneva points out three main myths: “(1) that money is a creature of the market born out of the necessity to facilitate bartering; (2) that money is an object, usually of some intrinsic value (derived from precious metals) that is easily transportable and divisible; and (3) that in and of itself, money has little economic significance (it is “neutral”), serving only to simplify transactions but leaving employment, consumption, and investment decisions unaffected.”

Tcherneva, by pointing out some fundamentals of monetary policies as myths that cannot be sustained in the face of empirical evidence, places money not only as a tool of the State, but as a symbolic field that, in many aspects, is similar to the functioning of discourse. Myth three, that money is neutral, when questioned, points to an important feature of economic phenomena, a feature that money does not escape: its performative functioning.

If economic expectations function, above all, as producers of performance, after all, if the market thinks that the economic environment in a given country is going to deteriorate, it actually deteriorates, the currency also establishes relationships that are not only of value. Money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account is catachresis; dead metaphors that are no longer understood as such.

However, as can be inferred from Tcherneva's comments, this discursive functioning still has strong effects on the role that money plays in our daily lives. Currency as a means of exchange and as a unit of value permeates all our discursive practices around the valuation, not only of material goods, but also of symbolic and cultural goods[xviii]: our imaginary, with regard to any relationship of value, is taken by the ubiquitous reference of money. Thus, the comparisons we make (the means of exchange) end up also becoming a valuation (value unit).

From this perspective, one can understand how the loss of financial ballast, or the acceptance that fiduciary currency would be something old in history, plays a role similar to the loss of discursive ballast. In both cases, the result is an epistemological free-for-all in which it is up to each individual to define the rules for constructing and producing meaning, making it unfeasible, and virtually impossible, to share the sensible.

In the specific case of the financial backing, our hypothesis is that it constitutes a financial event, that is, performative, in which the role that the financial backing plays is similar to the role that the idea of ​​truth plays in the discourse[xx]. Thus, the advance of credit currency, without any ballast, may find equivalent in what we call fake news and the phenomenon that was created around post-truth. The fundamental difference is the epistemological framework built to deal with this gradual loss of ballast.

The path taken towards a currency without ballast goes through similar processes, such as the construction of a legal-institutional framework that supports the currency[xx], the transformation of the financial system into a self-referential semiotic field[xxx] and the need to expand the consumer market by increasing economic production; always measured by GDP. From these references, it may be clear what is intended in a comparison between fake news and credit money: evidently, this does not mean that money does not exist or that it is not valid; that is to say that its existence and validity depend on an epistemological set that has more force, the larger the group that shares this set.

The epistemological strength of fiat money was very clear in the 2008 crisis, at the same time it showed how the intricate financial system can only function without a physical ballast[xxiii]. Evidently, by defaulting on mortgage payments, the system would eventually collapse. However, when the fragile architecture of the subprime, which sold debts owed by people who could never pay them, the system immediately collapsed. That is, even before its effects began to be felt, when it was discovered that the framework that supported those operations was performative.

One begins to understand the relationship between discursive ballast and financial ballast. Without an open discursive system, whose epistemology that sustains it is fragmented, the performativity of the system would be more easily questionable. Without a common, without the possibility of sharing, it is easier to impose the epistemology of the market as the only universal epistemology. It is then understood how the market ruler becomes the regulator of expectations.

Fake News – currency and speech

There is a general understanding that the fake news are not a recent phenomenon and that the use of lies as a political tool is, and always has been, common. On the other hand, there is also the understanding that what we experience today, the so-called post-truth, exhibits unique characteristics. Either because of the speed, brought by social networks, with which information spreads, or because this is a truly epistemological change[xxiii], what we call fake news it is not a phenomenon that can be treated as a new relationship between lies and truth. This phenomenon can only exist due to the loss of discursive ballast. In other words, the epistemological change we are witnessing only exists because of the impossibility of constructing a common conceptual minimum.

In that sense, the fake news summarize the fundamental part of discursive functioning after the 1970s: the commitment to the performativity of discourse. Vladimir Safatle points out that, with the advent of cynicism, in the sense that Sloterdijk gives the term, it would no longer make sense to think of performative contradiction, as we might think when facing the ambivalence between news and fact. However, what can be noticed is that with the absence of common assumptions, which provide the basis for a contradiction to exist, performativity becomes the only force at play in the relationship between enunciation and enunciation. In a way, it is like saying that the enunciation no longer exists, only what is put into operation exists: the enunciation.

Abandoning the gold backing is operating a similar process in relation to money. The ballast would be the enunciation, against which the enunciation may or may not be constituted as a contradiction. The abandonment of ballast, the volatilization of currency, transforms financial operations into utterances, in which the performative force of those who operate them is worth more than the relationship it maintains with the utterance.

Economics, as a performative science par excellence, ends up being catapulted to the center of any debate, be it about education, health, or science. The exhaustive use of data[xxv] serves to mask the absence of ballast and the predominance of performativity in these discourses that claim to be technical.

An end at the very beginning

What is intended here is to outline a possible relationship between the political discursive phenomenon of fake news and the economic process of financialization of capital. Although there are points to be worked on, the general idea, exposed by the concept of loss of discursive ballast and its correlation with the loss of financial ballast, seems to me to be quite valid. Studies on neoliberalism[xxiv] and its change in human and time management modes can also be incorporated into this broader idea. These notes aim to propose a way to understand the functioning of the public sphere and think about effective possibilities to build political options.

*Lucius Proves He holds a PhD in Literary Theory from USP.


[I] Folha de São Paulo, April 01, 2006, in: Accessed March 01, 2018.

[ii] Accessed March 15, 2018.

[iii] The concept of cynicism throughout this article will be the same one coined by Peter Sloterdijk in Critique of cynical reason. The idea of ​​“enlightened false consciousness”, which permeates the aforementioned book, seems to define very well what this cynical reason and cynicism would be: the possibility of always choosing the easiest way out, ethically and politically, without this causing any kind of confusion. conflict (what we would call, in other times, contradiction).

[iv] The concept was elaborated in my doctoral thesis. However, it is the result of an exchange of many years with Roberto Zular on issues common to the study of enunciation and its relations with literature.

[v] The difference between experience and experience is a proposal that I bring in dialogue with Alexandre Nodari in order to differentiate between what is something individual and whose sharing cannot cross this border, the experience, of something that can only be built in its sharing, the experience.

[vi] As we will see, the cynicism that prevails in our society prevents so-called performative contradictions from occurring. This means that the difference between what is said and what is said, between what I say and what I do is becoming less and less important.

[vii] Gilles Lipovetsky, Zygmunt Bauman, Elie During, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht , Ulrich Beck, Maria Rita Kehl, Tales Ab'Saber, Jean-François Lyotard, Henri Meschonnic, Georges Didi-Huberman, Isleide Fontele, David Harvey, Paulo Arantes, Reinhardt Koselleck, François Hartog, Marcos Siscas, Octávio Paz. These are just some of the names of researchers from the most diverse areas who noticed a compression of the perception of time. It is also possible to think that “the end of history” by Francis Fukuyama would be another way of diagnosing this change between times, albeit with a celebratory and conservative tone that is far removed from the other thinkers mentioned.

[viii] It is possible to relate the idea of ​​the common as it appears in Rancière to concepts from linguistics and anthropology such as the idea of ​​“frame”, phraseology, the grammar of constructions. Many of these stem from Chomsky's early ideas of a universal grammar. What happens is that what was shared becomes increasingly fragmented. One example is the growing difficulty in identifying irony in written texts. It is increasingly common, when an article writer writes ironically, that the reader is warned with a phrase like “contains irony”. It is impossible not to remember the milk packaging that warns the consumer that the product in question “contains milk”.

[ix] Some of these marks appear in frequent references to a supposed decontextualization of speech, as if the context were something immutable and, therefore, a place of truth. The concept of place of speech, which is either seen as a version of “standpoint theory” or the concept of “positionality”, is an example of this place of truth that is established from a supposed context prior to enunciation.

[X] The case of the trial of the police officers who participated in the Carandiru massacre, reviewed in 2016, is symptomatic of this process. Because it is impossible to judge a collective crime, each police officer should have his share of blame. However, as it is a massacre, it is impossible to individualize. What seems to be just a technical detail or formality, as it often appears in Law, is a fundamental part of the functioning of this language: the legal act is the only one that has the power to determine its own ballast, disregarding a common one.

[xi] Adriana Varejão is perhaps a great example of how the broadening of symbolic language affects the production of meaning and, in turn, results in the loss of ballast. The work she does with tiles is often not just a problem with the artistic material; it becomes a signature, a way of recognizing the author's work; a ballast, anyway. The fact that artists create their own ballast with the public is a symptom of this loss.

[xii] Reports of pranks, accidents and even crimes that occur in places where performance is expected are numerous and range from a pineapple placed in an art gallery in Edinburgh, passing through the shock that a student suffered at the UFPE Institute of Arts, up to two cases of stabbings in galleries that were considered a performance by the witnesses.

[xiii] It is necessary to emphasize the temporal coincidence between the loss of financial ballast and the loss of discursive ballast. The unilateral breaking of the Bretton Woods agreement by the US may represent the beginning of this new system that was announced since the post-war period. Until then, experiments with unbacked currency did not have the impact they had at that time because we had not consolidated a global economy. In other words, what was done locally did not impact the economy in the same way, as nation-states did not have the power to influence the global economy with monetary policies. This dematerialization of money and the flexibilization of capital accumulation, as proposed by David Harvey, imposes a compression of space and time that spreads across all levels of social experience. Space is losing its forms of resistance to mold itself to the ever-faster process of capital. That is, the concomitance also reveals some interinfluence between these two processes. The financialization of capital would not be possible without the lost discursive ballast. How to speculate if we are trapped in a common narrative? An example is the 2008 crisis and the subprime. Those who made a lot of money during this period were those who realized how much cynicism there was in those financial relationships.

[xiv] In XNUMXth-century England, the quarrel between bullionist and antibullionist monetarists is seen as the beginning of this dispute between backed currency and credit or fiduciary money. Bullionists, supporters of what came to be developed as the Quantitative Theory of Money (TQM), believed that inflation was the result of an imbalance between money and the metal that supported it (the bullion), that is, they believed that inflation was a problem of excess emission. The antibullionistas, on the other hand, did not believe that the increase in prices was the result of excess currency. For a deeper understanding of the topic, see Fonseca & Mollo, 2012.

[xv] Some economists point out that not only fiat money (fiat money) is not a phenomenon as old as several economists argue, as they comment on the fact that this fiat currency, which would replace commodity money, is an economic invention that does not find support in reality. On this, an excellent article is by Goldberg (2015).

[xvi] André Lara Resende, in his book Interest, currency and orthodoxy, is dedicated to investigating this gap, discussing the different monetary theories in chapters 1 to 3, passing through the difficulty in specifying what determines the price, a consequence of the lack of understanding about money and the difficulty in specifying the relationship between money and inflation. But the most important point, in my view, are the various moments in which Resende highlights the distance between the proposal of some macroeconomic theories and economic reality.

[xvii] One of the last symptoms of this absence is the debate around the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). In addition to the lack of unity around what this theory would be, the criticisms show that there are several ways to understand what money is and, mainly, its function.

[xviii] The most recent example is the statement by the Minister of Education that it is necessary to invest in courses that have a return.

[xx] It would be easy to understand why MMT has been making a strong appearance in the financial market, as some reports from the New York Times and Bloomberg. In some way, the financial compensation, around U$ 1 trillion, made in the post-crisis of 2008 is an application of the basic ideas of the MMT. This is equivalent to saying that the basic principle of the MMT, that the deficit is not the biggest problem when the indebtedness is carried out in the currency that can be issued, has existed for some time for a certain economic elite (how can I not remember Proer), but when it comes to actual public policy, its application is limited.

[xx] Although currency did not emerge along with the nation-state in the XNUMXth century, its strength and universalization were only possible due to the institutional structure set up with the birth of the state. Just look at the resistance cryptocurrencies receive from Central Banks.

[xxx] Here, as in the case of the speech, the crises resulting from the abandonment of ballast unilaterally by the US with the breach of the Bretton Woods agreement.

[xxiii] It is important to differentiate physical ballast, usually a precious metal, from discursive or symbolic ballast. The defense that States, and the “solidity” of their economies, become the backing of currencies is something veiled. In any case, it is important to establish this matrix so that it is clear that the abandonment of the financial ballast does not mean the abandonment of any ballast, but only its extreme flexibility.

[xxiii] One comment is in order: it is true, as Foucault points out, that different societies produce different regimes of truth. However, changes in the regime of truth do not always produce epistemological changes. In other words, the discursive record of truth, when altered, did not always produce changes in the forms of knowledge (and knowledge). The case here is that the post-truth era, the loss of discursive ballast, means that, more than the regime, the way of producing and receiving knowledge is changed.

[xxv] About this, it is worth referring to Evgeny Morozov and his book Big Tech: The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics.

[xxiv] It is interesting to see how, on social media, this term is ridiculed by certain economists, as if the widely debated concept were a non-concept. As usual, no debate is established, only the lack of merit. This is how the public field works in a world without ballast.

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