10 Years after the Financial Crash: Can We Give up Our Bad Faith in the Free Market?
The 2008 financial crises sent shockwaves around the world. Only two decades before we were widely believed to be at the ‘end of history’, where capitalism and democracy would permanently reign supreme. Indeed, as the twenty-first century dawned, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan boldly proclaimed that corporate globalization was as inevitable as ‘gravity’. Then within the space of weeks, this sacred economic religion was suddenly shown to be very vulnerable indeed. As the full scale of the tragedy unfolded, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this was much more than a sharp economic downturn - it was a total system crash that would soon engulf the political and cultural status quo.
Even before the crash, a growing number of scholars were warning against the mass rise of a ‘market fundamentalism’. Akin to other extremist ideologies, it took hyper-capitalist values of privatization, marketization, and financialization as matters of faith. In the words of nobel prize winning economist and former chief of the world bank Joseph Stiglitz:
‘From a historical point of view, for a quarter of a century the prevailing religion of the West has been market fundamentalism. I say it is a religion because it was not based on economic science or historical evidence.’
At stake was a complete crisis in confidence in the system as a whole and the elites most profiting from it.
This general loss of faith gave birth, in turn, to an ironic but nonetheless understandable desire for a return to a more stable recent past. Or more precisely, a longing to go back to a time when a prosperous future seemed guaranteed. These fantasies are witnessed in the dominant discourse in the immediate aftermath of the crisis emphasizing the need for ‘recovery’. While even mainstream politicians such as Gordon Brown and George W. Bush gave public lip service to the significance of a ‘paradigm shift’, in practice the majority of their rhetoric and policies focused on at best ‘bailing out’ a broken system and at worst entrenching it even stronger in the form of austerity.
This perverse agenda played heavily on popular nostalgia for a previous ‘golden age’ where progress was assured. As this vaunted recovery failed to fully materialize, politics has largely given way to a battle between genuine cynics and hopeful nihilists. The former accept the status quo for as much as they wish it were otherwise they firmly believe that a better world simply isn’t possible. The best that can be hoped for are incremental changes that hold back the worst excesses of our present neoliberal order. The latter appear to believe in nothing more than destroying the system wholesale, in watching the status quo that for decades left them behind now go down in figurative (and perhaps even literal) flames.
These Centrist and far Right politics share, despite their differences, a profound sense of bad faith. This refers to a phenomenon popularized by existentialist - notably the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre - in which an individual knows fully well that what they believe and how they live is not authentic or true yet continues to do so irregardless. In the contemporary era, this can be traced back to a lack of credible alternatives for organizing our personal and collective existence. The free market has become so deeply rooted that it is close to impossible to even imagine a world in which it does not predominate. As the cultural theorist Frederic Jameson famously declared; ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.’ The result has been the political embrace of either technocratic managers such as Hillary Clinton or dangerous CEO leaders like Donald Trump.
There is though, hope on the horizon. New progressive movements have been sweeping the globe challenging this outdated order and the bad faith keeping it in power. From the Arab Spring to Sanders in the US to Corbyn in the UK, these movements may at times seem to be speaking of social democratic values from the past. However, they reflect a renewed embrace of the human ability to take a leap of faith beyond the destructive and limiting horizon of capitalism. They are a testament to the idea that history has not ended and the contemporary order is far from ‘inevitable’ and therefore unalterable. It opens up new spaces for exploring what individuals can accomplish and what new radical types of freedoms and social relations can emerge.
This renewed embrace of our existential freedom will be especially crucial in the next ten years. If the current times are imbued with the promise and threat of technology. Big Data, social media, artificial intelligence, and robotics has the potential to both further exploit and enslave us or lead us to fresh opportunities for discovery and liberation. It can march us down the dystopian path of even more sophisticated corporate rule and ‘smart’ control or it can open the way to a post-work society where our passions can be fully explored and people are prioritized over profits. These ‘disruptive technologies’ will either be our damnation or salvation. The question is can we give up our bad faith in the free market in order to rediscover the faith in ourselves to shape our own destinies?
Peter Bloom is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of People and Organisations at the Open University, UK. His book The Bad Faith in the Free Market: The Radical Promise of Existential Freedom is available now.