Can The Market Speak? And should we speak to it?

Jesssica Winterson reviews  Can The Market Speak? by Campbell Jones, soon to be published by Zero Books.


According to Olivier Blanchard, Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, ‘the markets have become sceptical about the ability of policy makers, of governments to stabilise their public debt’. This peculiar spiel is paralleled in popular guides to investors which emphasise ‘listening’ to the markets, and is easily traced to the media and everyday life through such clichés as ‘when Wall Street sneezes the rest of the world gets a cold’ and ‘money talks’.

These processes of personification are deeply embedded in the history of capital and can have quite different appearances. In contrast to the market analyst, Marx makes the fabulous nature of his personification (such as when he ‘gives’ capital the power of speech in order to ask it questions) absolutely explicit. Having noted this, it is abstraction that becomes the object of investigation in Can the Market Speak? and Jones is keen to assert that this is about more than just the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities. In so doing he alternates wildly between the term ‘prosopopoeia’ (a rhetorical device in which a speaker communicates to an audience by speaking as another person) and ‘personification’, but it never really becomes clear that it’s worth the extra precision in spelling.

What is clear is that the imaginary nature of these characterisations cannot be dismissed as merely ‘figures of speech’ and Jones makes a valiant attempt to capture the transformations they enact at an ontological level. Going beyond the traditional hierarchies, this becomes a critique of power in which it is clear that the ‘spirit of capitalism’ cannot be usefully understood to rest in individuals. Rather, the markets derive their power from an apparent incomprehensibility that serves to obscure intention and prevent accountability. It is here that his ideas are of considerable philosophical import as he begins to uncover the ways in which abstraction can mask agency in the service of impunity.

Parallels can be drawn with Martinot’s lucid and theoretically disciplined paper ‘The Militarization of the Police’. Using the police murder of the unarmed black man Amadou Diallo as a springboard (of which there are countless UK parallels: Smiley Culture, Anthony Grainger and Mark Duggan to name but a few) Martinot details a system in which the killing itself has become unpunishable as the act stands both above the police and the legal prohibition against murder.

The routine structures that the police have available ‘stop and question’, ‘stop and search’ (as well as those prejudices that remain unofficial, such as guilt by association) manifest themselves on the street in the person of the police as racialized, arbitrary and gratuitous procedure. Once detained, all of the authority of the law can be brought to bear on an individual. Since, once detained the police have powers to use ‘reasonable force’; the result is that any police directive must be obeyed by the person detained. And so the detainee is subjected to two systems of law: the legislated law and the law the police can make arbitrarily in the form of directives. This gives the police the ability to transform a person under suspicion into a de facto criminal at will as the officer only has to find a directive that an individual will resist (out of self-respect, dignity or a feeling that it is unwarranted) and such a stance will be construed as disobedience.

In being constrained to absolute obedience in these procedures, an individual is not only captive to a legal system through having being suspected (or, noticed) but can be further criminalized for defence of their sense of justice or dignity. This constitutes an ability to criminalize a person’s personhood of which the overall political import is not a demand for obedience, but obeisance. In obedience, one stands as a person in relation to that which one obeys, in obeisance, one abandon’s one’s standing to the transcendent meaning of an icon or concept to which one must abject oneself.

The personification of the market establishes a rhetorical figure by which the abstract entity (the market) is animated. This figure assumes generally taken for granted ideas regarding personhood and an agency that is understood to reside in speech: the attribution of voice posits an intention behind that voice. And so, as Jones points out, ‘this idea of an intending agency does important work in positing an always elusive agency that rests behind observable signs’. Whilst there seems to be an animating agency, it cannot be traced back to any particular agent. The multiplicity of collective actions that sustains the markets is reduced to an enigmatic agency that can speak with one voice.

Demands that we ‘listen to the market’ (and so on) are thereby an implicit appeal to the assumption that the market is governed by some manner of designer that must be obeyed. This amounts to a demand for obeisance to the markets. Agency and abstraction are again obscured, working to shield those that operate in the markets (or the police) from accountability. Such lack of transparency valorises and facilitates a culture of impunity and is vital to the machinations of a capitalist system. Or, to put it differently, a capitalist regime of domination is perpetuated and normalised through abstract mechanisms that pose as though they were the reproduction of everyday life.

The market’s ability to speak, Jones states, provides an alibi: ‘it is not me who wants these things. I am merely giving voice to the desires of another’. The enigma and apparent irrationality of the markets can then presuppose elite experts and a corresponding rationality to those who trade on them – a modus operandi that sees individuals and nations told that they must suffer in order to atone the markets. Jones puts this down to ‘violent metonymic reduction’ – ‘to find a will of the market that speaks in the voice of a singular command that others must follow is the express denial of the multiple and the installation of power of those who stand in the position of that One’.

The temptation becomes, he says, to focus our attention on deciphering what it really is that those who speak for the market want. And, quite rightly, he concludes that doing so is a waste of time that: at best, will point to the illusory nature of the personification and; at worst will emphasise psychological motivations such as greed to the extent that one becomes co-opted into a process of individualisation that protects the markets as a structural force.

As Bob Black puts it ‘the apparatus, not its personnel, is the real enemy’. Whilst Jones is clear that the system is sophisticated in terms of structure, not individuals, he lacks clout. Indeed, despite frequent appropriation of quotes from Marx this is not a convincing critique of capitalism per se but, rather, the philosophically puzzling contemporary strain of it he identifies.

Nonetheless, due attention should be paid to the way in which this dictatorship of the market helps to establish a hyper-political context in which its actors (necessarily) work within a system of impunity. Martinot uses his assessment of a militarized police to explain why 80% of the world’s largest prison population is formed by people of colour, two thirds of which were convicted for non-violent, victimless crimes. Jones’ insights should also be related to the increasing prevalence of injustice, corruption and hypocrisy that surrounds the current crisis and the culture of contempt propagated by the UK government.

Hence, whilst both left and right wing media made connections between the self-enriching behaviour of ‘fat-cats’ and the looters of the 2011 ‘riots’ it is only prison sentences such as the six months received for stealing a bottle of water that spring to mind. This ludicrous punishment is indicative of an undeclared war on the majority of the public. The system derives its power from an apparent unaccountability and so public law must ratify itself in this private domain it has established beyond itself. As Martinot identifies, prisons do not function as a punishment for crime: rather, they are the place where punishment for having been criminalised occurs.

The concluding remarks of Can the Market Speak? state that ‘there is today a sense of urgency of shaking self imposed silences and the raising of voices’. This strikes me as a halting state of affairs. Radical change will not come about by speaking out against or reacting to the markets.


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