Finance in Frankfurt: The Global Left and the Eurozone

Com­ing out of the city on the train one morn­ing, I passed by Occupy Frank­furt – maybe three dozen large tents, a con­cen­trated but stead­fast group. It was pour­ing rain – my run from the tram to the main train sta­tion left me soak­ing, despite umbrella – but the encamp­ment seemed unper­turbed, perched as it is under­neath some of the largest sym­bols of Europe’s finance sec­tor.

The speci­ficity of Occupy broke US bor­ders in Octo­ber and landed in Lon­don, Berlin, Frank­furt. As Axel Hon­neth has recently pointed out, Occupy is a new form of col­lec­tive agent – we might add that its model reacts dif­fer­ently with dif­fer­ent set­tings.1 In the US, Occupy lit­er­ally fills in a hole in the polit­i­cal-eco­nomic logic of the present. As we learned this week, even politi­cians of the high­est level in the US are “pro­tected” from the inter­nal deal­ings of the Fed­eral Reserve (where “inter­nal” includes the mem­ber banks, emphat­i­cally not pub­lic cor­po­ra­tions). It is as if Occupy had responded to this con­spir­a­to­rial state of affairs in advance, point­ing out the lack of the slight­est pub­lic or insti­tu­tional focus on the real­i­ties of finance pol­i­tics. Not that we don’t talk pub­licly of finance – we do that almost con­stantly. But the polit­i­cal ele­ment of this dis­cus­sion has been miss­ing, drowned in the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of “sur­vival.” What Occupy occu­pies, we could say, is a log­i­cal hole in the global finan­cial land­scape. It stakes its claim where the voice of pol­i­tics seems to dis­ap­pear into the machi­na­tions of an ana­lytic eco­nom­ics. To para­phrase one of the movement’s bet­ter slo­gans: you can’t evict a neces­sity.

To see that neces­sity in cor­po­real form this morn­ing was strik­ing. Mil­i­tary-grade tents pro­tected sol­i­dar­ity from the cold down­pour in the tra­di­tional cen­ter of Germany’s war between cap­i­tal­ism and cri­tique. The encamp­ment lay between the finance dis­trict and the Paulskirche, where the 1848 rev­o­lu­tions in Ger­many began. And Hon­neth is now direc­tor of the Insti­tut für Sozial­forschung, the root insti­tu­tion of what came to be known as the Frank­furt School. Frank­furt – already an eman­ci­pated city-state when Goethe was born there in 1749 – is the present con­tra­dic­tion between finan­cial tech­nics and polit­i­cal insis­tence incar­nate. Incar­nate – but also trans­formed. Occupy occu­pies dif­fer­ently in Europe, and I want to sug­gest a few points of dif­fer­ence here.

The biggest head­li­nes here are about sav­ing the Eurozone’s cur­rency-based unity. Inter­nal con­tro­ver­sies – should the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank issue bonds? what per­cent­age of GDP is appro­pri­ate as debt-share? – are inter­na­tional, but the sense of national stand­point is strong. (There is much talk of the dou­ble-national jug­ger­naut “Merkozy.”) In fact, the con­tro­ver­sies are car­ried out in an inter­na­tional dia­logue which is nev­er­the­less only half insti­tu­tion­al­ized. The Com­mis­sion in Brus­sels has rel­a­tively lit­tle polit­i­cal power in the United States of Europe, which is an ad-hoc democ­racy of states. The real­ity of the Euro­zone is pre­car­i­ous because it is not clear that any polit­i­cal unity remains in the event of a sys­temic cri­sis.

To save the Union, the eco­nom­i­cally stronger mem­bers have implic­itly sup­ported regime-change in the weaker mem­bers, lead­ing to the “cor­rect” result that tech­nocrats like Monti in Italy (whose expe­ri­ence, as the media do not tire of point­ing out, is in the Com­mis­sion, not in Ital­ian par­lia­ment) must be entrusted with the task of reduc­tion of debt below a cer­tain, unde­ter­mined point. (Germany’s debt, stand­ing in the low 80s of per­cent of GDP, is itself already far out­side the mar­gin estab­lished in the con­sti­tu­tion.) The real­ity of the Union wavers between its eco­nomic and tech­no­cratic forms and its ad-hoc polit­i­cal inter­na­tion­al­ism. The Union is there­fore per­haps the best case-study in the emer­gent forms of finance cap­i­tal­ism. While in the US we face con­gres­sional dead­lock and the increas­ing secrecy of the exec­u­tive branch (and its coop­er­a­tion with finance in par­tic­u­lar), in Europe Occupy responds to a less uni­fied, less mil­i­ta­rized, less exec­u­tive polit­i­cal-eco­nomic real­ity. If Occupy is inter­na­tional – if it wants to become global – its pos­si­bil­i­ties in Europe must be explored for just this rea­son. As de facto inter­na­tional as the US is, Europe’s nego­ti­a­tions present us with a sort of purer exam­ple of finance capitalism’s polit­i­cal super­struc­ture. In the con­tin­ual redraw­ing of inter­nal and exter­nal lines in a space sin­gu­larly reac­tive to both national and local polit­i­cal exi­gen­cies and finan­cial “neces­si­ties,” we are wit­ness to finan­cial class pol­i­tics, a pol­i­tics which artic­u­lates itself as a class­less reduc­tion to tech­ni­cal ques­tions, to eco­nomic “health.”

Occupy’s US branches are already react­ing to an insti­tu­tional lack: no major US insti­tu­tion makes any pre­tense to lev­el­ing wealth inequal­ity, nor to a con­fronta­tion with finance in any crit­i­cal reg­is­ter. In Europe, this is also true, but with a dif­fer­ence. Where in the US the pos­si­bil­ity of a left-wing party in Con­gress robustly defend­ing some other bal­ance between finance and indus­try is cer­tainly think­able (wit­ness Robert Reich’s nos­tal­gia for post-war cap­i­tal­ism), in Europe the “new col­lec­tive agent” is respond­ing to the pos­i­tive need for some­thing entirely new: a “Finance Left,” a Left for a new mode of pro­duc­tion, nec­es­sar­ily inter­na­tional, which must seek forms of col­lec­tiv­ity and insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in response to the half-insti­tu­tion­al­ized finan­cial unit “Europe.” This move­ment, which Occupy has con­jured the basis of, needs to rec­og­nize its real­ity, but not its ide­ol­ogy, in finance cap­i­tal. For that, it must look to Europe.

US Occupy might take a few ques­tions into account on this basis. Is the movement’s inter­est inter­na­tional? Is its finance-cri­tique aimed at the insti­tu­tional depth and breadth of finance cap­i­tal as such? If so, I think it should keep an eye on Europe, both on Merkozy and on the protests here, for the sim­ple rea­son that the eco­nomic real­ity of finance-cap­i­tal is reflected in the national/international con­tra­dic­tion in Europe at the polit­i­cal level. Europe presents the inter/national pol­i­tics of finance in a lit­er­ally exem­plary man­ner, bear­ing the famil­iar marks of finan­cial­iza­tion in the econ­omy: pre­car­ity, mobil­ity, dis­so­lu­tion, tech­ni­cal­ity, reduc­tion of deci­sions to the logic of “sur­vival.”

The “prob­lem” of Europe’s full tech­ni­cal insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in the Com­mis­sion and polit­i­cal ad-hoc (dis)unity is not neg­a­tive, in finance-polit­i­cal terms, but enabling. Europe crys­tal­lizes the asym­met­ri­cal rela­tion­ship between power’s base and its insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion, pre­cip­i­tat­ing in a strug­gle over national sov­er­eignty which is explic­itly pushed into the back­ground by the “prag­ma­tists” Merkozy. The uni­lat­eral clar­ity of the mil­i­tary-finan­cial com­plex of the US and its Bret­ton Woods insti­tu­tions (the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank) now has a par­al­lel model, mul­ti­lat­eral finance pol­i­tics in Europe. If the crises leave the US in a mid­dling posi­tion in global geopol­i­tics, we will be con­fronted with the pri­macy of this lat­ter form. The Global Left might need not be fur­ther insti­tu­tion­al­ized, at least not as its first task, but it cer­tainly needs to define its power-base. If the indus­trial strug­gle was based on the own­er­ship of sur­plus-value – who gets the results of human productivity’s excess – then finan­cial strug­gle might be about debt. Per­haps the ana­lyt­i­cal focus of the inter­na­tional move­ment must be the (ulti­mately) dol­lar-value each of us – and each nation – must bear. The uncanny pos­si­bil­ity that one could sum up neg­a­tive is for all that not the less real. How does a global col­lec­tive pro­pose to address real neg­a­tive quan­ti­ties?

1. “Mich fasziniert, dass [die Occupy-Bewe­gung] einen neuen Typus von kollek­tivem Akteur her­vorzubrin­gen scheint.” In “Das Finanzkap­i­tal ent­machten,” philoso­phie Mag­a­zin Nr. 01/2012, p. 60. [“It fas­ci­nates me that [the Occupy move­ment] appears to be pro­duc­ing a new type of col­lec­tive agent.”]

Leif Weath­erby is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, and cur­rently a guest in the depart­ment of phi­los­o­phy at the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­sity in Berlin.

Author of the article

is an Assistant Professor of German Studies at New York University.

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