Where Did The Future Go?

Randy Martin



nce upon a time, capital had a dream of the future. For those with the patience and fortitude to abide its travails, the new day would bring growth, progress and the promise of a better life. For those workers of the world who could secure a seat on the bus, the trip to tomorrow would take them to a market utopia. While the past was littered with the corpses of colonialism, slavery and genocide and the present offered endless toil, the future was a time apart. The fortunate would be freed from work in the form of retirement and leave the earth secure in the knowledge that their kids would do better than they had. The passage of biological time between generations would be reinscribed as upward mobility–giving the movement of time itself a positive connotation. Needless to say, most of the world’s peoples–still awaiting their moment of development to come–never got to live the dream, or pursued another under the banner of socialism.

For the last twenty-five years those who might have been lulled by capital’s utopian chords have been subject to a rude awakening. The paradisiacal wing of the social compact has taken flight. If capital’s old ways of seeking popularity have frayed around the edges, the new and different are still very much open to debate. In the three decades since the utopian promises of the welfare state have beat their retreat, finance has been in ascendance. Much has been said about what the regime of investment means for capital itself, but less focus has been given to the implications of finance’s rule for the experience of daily life.[1] One shift lies in how finance asks people to imagine their future or more specifically to see the future as already at hand. Given how much capitalism had once staked on the future, the political implications of that change merit careful attention, especially if we are to see in finance more than novel means of domination. The last time finance led the charge, it was called the age of imperialism. Today we suffer imperialism’s renaissance.

It has long been observed on the left that the consumptionist cornucopia was not all that it was cracked up to be. The neoconservative movement has emerged with a mandate to re-enchant capitalism by infusing it with their own brand of liberation theology. Fueled by this evangelical impulse, freedom need not wait for the future–it can be had in the here and now. But emancipation has a price, really a value with its attendant political economy. Patience and forbearance must give way to incessant agressivity in the face of evil and vigilant opportunism for the prospect of good. A future deferred reflects intolerable ethical indolence. For the future to come now, the present moment must be lived pre-emptively.

Pre-emption is where foreign and domestic policy meet, where the American Dream encounters the U.S. imperium, where the internal obstacles to the ownership society become entangled with the war on terror. The emphasis in state economic management has shifted from promoting growth to curbing inflation, from Keynesian pump-priming to Monetarist adjustment of prime interest rates. From the perspective of growth, the future flies in friendly skies. But the specter of inflation makes those same skies unnavigable for investment. Even the sunniest returns on securities will be clouded by inflation, and make the multitudes too queasy to entrust their fate to a market metaphysic. That, at least is the logic of curbing inflation before it can form, of pre-empting uncertainty so that people can undertake risk in financial markets. In the late seventies and early eighties, this ascent of a monetarist state and financial capital launched the normalization of risk embrace. Domestic tranquility and a secure future underwritten by corporate capital and the welfare state would be traded for the sovereign self-management advertised by a governing coalition of neoliberals and neoconservatives. The former champion small government (deregulation) and big markets (privatization), while the later advance an interventionist state (in affairs both private and international) and a moralizing economy (redemption through investment).

No longer divided between labor and capital, society’s central cleavage would be played out along the lines of risk–the prospect of a return in excess of expectation. Those capable of embracing it, investors all, would be the managers if not masters of their own lives. Those who could not would be cast as populations “at risk,” and be the targets of all manner of domestic wars (on drugs, crime, kids and culture). In practice, this financialization of daily life did not banish labor, but elaborated it in the domestic sphere.[2] The home would revert to its originary Greek status as oikos–the root of economy–now the scene where money not flesh would be constantly fondled as all manner of futures (pensions, kids educations, debt disbursements, home mortgages) would be worked over into the wee hours. And capital, far from being democratized and distributed, was not only concentrated, but also reincarnated as a plethora of financial instruments. Local debts like home mortgages, car and consumer loans were repackaged as tradable securities (securitization), and equities were disassembled into constituent elements to hedge differential risks such as fluctuating currency or interest rates (derivatives).

The expansion of this economy of risk has been both financial and demographic. Financial markets trade more in a month than the entire annual global gross domestic product. The derivatives markets alone are now valued at over $ 100 trillion.[3] In the past twenty-five years participation by U.S. households in the stock market has gone from under a tenth to over one-half of them. Pensions have changed from defined benefit (a percentage of final salary) to predominantly defined contribution (a percentage of current salary managed in myriad retirement accounts).[4] As financial capital concentrates wealth (so much of CEO compensation bloat is in stocks and options), the burdens of risk have become more widely distributed. Guarantees of domestic security have been replaced with buy-ins to securitization. For those able to take the risk rather than be taken by it, the future comes crashing into the present.

The risk-capable–momentarily crystalized in the now largely defunct day trader–are the poster children of neoliberalism. The “at-risk” are the human dart boards of the neocons. In 1983, then Secretary of Education William Bennett issued the polemic “A Nation At Risk” which fingered low test scores among public school children as a threat to national security via compromised market competitiveness.[5] A new regime of discipline and punish, with tightly controlled content standards, turned education into a battlefield that now buries its dead (before they survive to become fully grown threats) in a cemetery called “No Child Left Behind.” In 1981, Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig, identified international terrorism–understood as one big family with the USSR behind it–to be a rampant threat.[6] The culture wars treated those artists who might create obscene work as a moral contagion that needed defunding. The war on drugs sanctioned use of military intervention for domestic police activities so as to reverse the time of investigation and punishment. The 1970 statute for combating organized crime (the anti-racketeering or RICO Act) was increasingly applied to political organizations. This legal framework for surveillance, property seizure and prosecution of “shadowy networks” would be folded into the PATRIOT Act passed after September 11, 2001. In sum, these domestic wars would pave the way for the war on terror, an antagonism presented as unbounded in time or space.[7]

While anti-communism was metaphorized spatially as containment–impermeable boundaries between them and us, friend and foe–anti-terrorism eschews spatial differentiation for shared temporality–the terrorists are among us, it’s only a question of time before they strike again. With spaces of foreign and domestic commingled, securitized so to speak, the terrorist is the bad object of risk embrace, one who places all good risk abiders at risk. This threat is itself inflationary, foretelling a flight from healthy speculative activity (to wit, the advice on how Americans can help after 911: “go shopping”). The only plausible response to this generalized state of affairs is pre-emption. Hence, highly delimited wars against historically specific former client states Afghanistan and Iraq were restaged as fronts in a war without end. Certainly containment was but a cover for intervention–a berm to stop the growth of an alternate system with its own field of dreams. But combating terror is an instance of what the military calls “forward deterrence,” a snatching of anti-systemic, unbounded future threats into the claws of momentary present gain. In this respect, the confluence of approaches to foreign and domestic policy, their coalescence around the figure of risk is not one of coincidence or simple conjuncture. Instead, the political and moral economy of risk that constructs the neoliberal/neoconservative condominium is foundational to the present imperial complex that leaves us cataleptic. 

Risk and finance share a present tense. Yet, while imperialism has returned full throated to the councils of international relations, finance is rarely seated at the table. The absence is curious, given that finance, a hybrid of industrial and banking capital forged of a profit squeeze that finds release in imperial race war, was central to Rudolf Hilferding’s seminal marxist formulation of the concept.[8] Perhaps this is because imperialism is most commonly discussed as a feature of national (U.S.) or corporate (oil) interest. The problem with this convention is that it attributes both omnipotence and omniscience to capital–namely that it always does what is best for it. Nearly three years after Bush declared mission accomplished in Iraq this claim is increasingly difficult to sustain, as is the notion that toppling foreign governments is the best way to secure oil access. No doubt, capital seeks to make sense of the world in terms of itself, but the consequence has more to do with patterns of operation than certainty of outcome. The current imperialism is indebted to all the others, but can be specified in terms of how finance organizes (and disorganizes) a way of life.

Finance is capital for others, the means by which the terms of mutual indebtedness are expanded and put into effect, the medium by which capital nestles and shrivels amidst ever more intricate byways of human association. The twin formations of contemporary finance–securitization and derivatives–are more saliently principles of movement, the first forcing association or assembly out of disparate risks, debts and productive capacities, the second disassembling and dispersing established equities or entities. If war is an expression and not simply an instrument of imperialism, we should expect to find in its path traces of these financial logics. While thoroughly destructive of human life and all that it has created, war also needs to be examined for what it produces. The twin wars prosecuted in the wake of the fallen towers took on the logics of finance in their own organization as well as their material efficacy.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 are the first fully realized applications of what is called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).[9] As military policy (it is also an historical perspective on the relation between organizational and technological change in ways of fighting), the RMA purports to eliminate the “fog of war.” By precisely coordinating intelligence about enemy positions with delivery of munitions the compromise to decision-making in the heat of battle that results in needless casualties, is eliminated. The made-for-TV versions of this scheme was “shock and awe” or “full spectrum dominance.” In practice, the RMA, or force transformation, applies risk management rubrics to the battlefield. Risk is to be transferred from U.S. combatants to civilians by use of intelligence gathering and technologically sophisticated weaponry.

The idea that local enemy positions can be fully mapped and rationalized in a comprehensive informational grid is consistent with the process of securitization. The use of Special Forces and limited troop deployments for key operations is intended to leverage high risk to widely dispersed effects in a manner consistent with the derivative (a portion of the military capacity is cleaved from the entire force to maximize opportunity at a specific point of risk). The 18 day battle of Tora Bora, Afghanistan in the winter of 2002 was the largest in the campaign but deployed only 200 U.S. troops.  Baghdad was declared fallen after armored convoys (also with but a few hundred soldiers) drove through downtown on the 4th and 7th of April, 2003 in what were called “thunder runs.”[10] Both mobilizations represented tactically successful instances of RMA principles that resulted in strategic failure. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both got away, extensive informatics produced failed intelligence, and terror, as it came to be known, proliferated and was dispersed.

Led by risk, these wars reverse the Clausewitzian dicta that they are extensions of politics. Rather, politics, the sort brought by these imperial liberations, looks increasingly like war, and war is conducted as an exercise in managing risk.  Occupying forces are neither trained nor sufficient to restore order or affect development. Instead, territory is pacified for further opportunity to exercise the war on terror and to promote speculation through limited investment. It is not simply that monies allocated for reconstruction are inadequate to the task. By the time that the Coalition Provisional Authority nominally transferred power to the interim Iraqi government in June, 2004, only half of the $18.4 billion appropriated to remake Iraq had actually been allocated to contractors and only 140 of 2,300 projects had actually gotten underway.[11] The deferred expenditure was more than a sop to Halliburton and other favored U.S. companies. Those private transnationals were subcontracting to Iraqi start-ups, thereby generating a speculative bubble in the reconstruction trade that was meant to seed the fledgling economy.

Despite the volatility of the Iraqi electoral process, the new government’s National Development Strategy for 2005-2007 closely mirrored the business plan outlined in Bush’s 2002 National Security document (the one that called for preemptive strikes). Iraq is to be transformed into a “prosperous, market-oriented regional powerhouse” by “abandoning the centralized system of economic management that was the hallmark of the previous regime.” The first item in a list steps for economic growth is, “maintaining low inflation within the context of sound monetary policy.” Tourism is to become the vehicle for increasing employment, and the food rationing provided by the Public Distribution System is to be replaced by small cash handouts. Given the difficulties of moving around Iraq, banking on religious tourism seems wishful at best.[12]

But if Iraq is freed to follow a theocratic path difficult to achieve in the U.S., it will do so under the firm hand of monetarist control. So too, the menace posed by the previous (unnamed) regime is not aggression toward regional or domestic opponents, as once thought, but now appears to be the shroud of socialism itself under the guise of a centrally managed economy. The hasty devolution of power and precipitous exit strategies leaves Iraq riven with terror and pits a population against itself while purging the nation of even the minimal infrastructure of what had once supported a people under duress. For combatants and civilians the war has gone on too long, but it is brief by design and short by comparison to say the 32 year occupation by British forces after bombing the country into existence in 1921. The war on terror had brought to fruition a nation at risk, subjected colonialism to the protocols of self-management, and keyed the economy to speculative finance.

By historical measures, this is a strange imperialism indeed.[13] Not that one would want to choose from among them. Compared to Britain’s civilizing mission of the nineteenth century, or even the United States’ interest in development in the twentieth century, the present incarnation of military dominance stands apart as an empire of indifference. This sorry state of affairs is not most usefully understood as simply incompetent leadership or absence of vision–however much both are in evidence. Those earlier schemes for world-making yielded great wealth but also a mutual indebtedness to social life from which capital itself has depended upon but also tended to flee. Cultivated populations and elegant cities–what once could be said for Baghdad or for that matter New Orleans–are both the basis for and a constraint upon the further expansion of capital. The two towns are, after all, linked by similar logics of reconstruction based upon risk management, now adopted as policy by the Office of Homeland Security which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).[14]           

The history of capitalism is one in which enormous human diversity has blossomed and been socially articulated along lines of class, race, nation, gender, sexuality, religiosity, as well as urbanism, technology, literacy, institutions of social welfare, specialized expertise–all of which can be captured by the term difference. An empire of indifference is a specific response to the multifarious discretions and capacities to live life that if not subjugated to the whims of accumulation can place a squeeze on its conditions of possibility. Clearly, George W. is never going to give a press conference in which he proclaims that capital made him do it. The motives for war are not reducible to some putative imperative of capital any more than the pursuit of wealth for profit adheres to a predictable rationale. Rather, when capital is treated as a social force one that generates modes of life and politics that it ultimately cannot abide, the political terms and possibilities of the present become more expansively legible.

As a social force, capital not only dispossesses people of old habits of life but also attaches them otherwise. Likewise, imperial occupation does not only sow chaos, but also introduces certain demands and desires that are self-ordering. The U.S. occupation of Iraq deployed shocking and awesome weapons of mass destruction against a nation that had none and liberated a country to the theocracy, torture, and terror cherished for itself but that it so dreads in others. It disordered the social economy and cleaved the population from its productive resources. These nefarious achievements came through techniques of bellicose securitization and the derivative war and left financialization in their wake. But financialization, like earlier imperial gifts, is a bit of a Trojan horse–something unexpected can still spill out.

When wealth is stripped of any specific application and aggregated as a great disposable mass and population is abandoned to be an ends in itself, liberated from an obligatory history, very different futures are brought into the present. The regimes of finance profit from the volatility they create and are too vertiginous to provide a stable picture of what the future might look like. The realm of future possibilities comes crashing into the present arena of necessity so that what seems compulsory is made volatile, evidently contingent, and called into question. Even the brief career of polled U.S. public support for the war suggests that the popular appeal of imperial hubris now decays more rapidly than had been the case for Vietnam or other such adventures.

Without durable strategic justification or a future that can be readily extrapolated from present action, every moment appears to be discretionary, manageable, decidable. The idea that there is a hundred trillion dollars or a capacity for geopolitical intervention that seems to be free to do anything and be anywhere at anytime, are equally unstable. The rule of indifference poses the conditions for a counter-movement of difference for itself and the political will and social wealth that would sustain it. The war on terror still battles the specter of communism proclaimed to have been exorcized. We may mourn the loss of utopian schemes that might grant us a fix on what the future could look like, and even work to re-engage those creative energies and abilities.[15] But a left cognizant of how capital works on us, and on what it leaves to us, may also be best placed to make something of the future that is already to hand.



[1] An institutional and historical map of the rise of finance can be found in Robert Guttmann, How Credit Money Shapes The Economy (New York: Armonk, 1994). David Harvey provides the most incisive conceptualization of finance from a marxist perspective in The Limits to Capital (Oxford: Basil Blackburn, 1982).

[2] See, Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).

[3] Edward Lipuma and Benjamin Lee, Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 173.

[4] For a recent synopsis of these changes see, Mary Williams Walsh, “More Companies Ending Promises for Retirement” The New York Times January 9, 2006 1:1. Data are collected by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, accessible online at  GOTOBUTTON BM_1_ www.ebri.org.

[5] A nation at risk : the imperative for educational reform : a report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education / by the National Commission on Excellence in Education (Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office, 1983).

[6] See, James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 270.

[7] See, Frances Fox Piven, The War at Home: The Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004 and Lawrence Grossberg, Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics and America’s Future (Paradigm Publishers, 2005).

[8] Rudolph Hilferding, Finance Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981).

[9] See, Chris Hables Gray, Postmodern War (New York, Guilford, 1996),Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books, 1991), Colin Gray, Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History (London: Frank Cass, 2002).

[10] Instructive accounts and assessments from inside the military establishment are provided by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. See, his The Lessons of Afghanistan: War Figthing, Intelligence, and Force Transformation (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2002); The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2003); The War After The War: Strategic Lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press, 2004).

[11] James Glanz and Erik Eckholm, “Reality Intrudes on Promises in Rebuilding of Iraq” The New York Times June 30, 2004, A1 and A11.

[12] See, Iraq’s National Development Strategy, 2005-2007  GOTOBUTTON BM_2_ www.export.gov/iraq/pdf/iraq_development_strategy_063005.pdf.

[13] For a sobering historical perspective, see the contributions gathered in Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young, eds., The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-In On U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: The New Press, 2005).

[14] “Risk management is fundamental to managing the threat, while retaining our quality of life and living in freedom.” “Remarks for Secretary Michael Chertoff U.S. Department of Homeland Security George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute” Washington, D.C. March 16, 2005.  GOTOBUTTON BM_I_ http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/display?content=4391 Accessed April 15, 2005.

[15] Not to be missed in this regard is Fredric Jameson’s recent work on science fiction and utopia, Archeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005).