There is only one Ali Baba, but 40 thieves. This has always frightened me. Yet as the fairytale goes, there are 40 thieves working to acquire the wealth that then goes to Ali Baba. Not immediately, of course. First there is the story of Ali’s rich and greedy brother Cassim.
To say it up front: the comparisons are open, but they all seem to somehow make sense. Whether the banks are the thieves or the greedy brother, or whether the state makes an appearance, or rather personal egoism, which according to Adam Smith is the mainspring of the community: we can apply these comparisons, and this is the corresponding speech at the regulars’ table: unjust, arrogant and with a lot of pleasure.
At least in the fairytale there is one just and sympathetic character with
whom we really can identify: Ali.
He hears the thieves coming, flees up a tree, and witnesses how the words ‘Open, Sesame’ magic open the mountain, where the thieves store their treasures. Later, Ali himself goes in and helps himself to the goods. His brother Cassim, rich and greedy, hears of this, and, in turn goes to steal the thieves’ stolen goods. At this point there are already several parallels to reality: one leads the way and another, possibly a little dumber, imitates him on a larger scale. With the help of the magic words Cassim gains entrance to the mountain but in his excitement forgets them and is trapped in it with all the treasure. On their return the thieves kill Cassim, cut him in pieces, and display these as a deterrent. Ali however brings the pieces of his brother back home, blindfolds the eyes of a tailor, and has Cassim sewn together again, so as to burry him as is proper in society.
It remains to be seen whether the men and women who are partly responsible
for the current crisis will be sewn back together and given an honorable funeral.
It is by no means certain that they will be cut into pieces.
If things go wrong it is the system: civil servant hierarchies, corporate departments, best of all in the hands of shareholders, delegate responsibility until it is nowhere to be found. All small shareholders want to do is secure their pension, that is what the state taught them. So it might be unfair to quote Blythe Masters, and by so doing giving the crisis a face. The woman - a women at long last- who, as an employee of Goldman Sachs made credit default swaps popular and marketed them aggressively, said at the SIFMA meeting on October 28, 2008, in other words after the first major slide: “It’s probably safe to say, that the image of our industry is at an all time low (…) Last time we were dancing to Hootie & the Blowfish but this time we will listen to the Harlem Voice Quire”. Of course it was not hard to see that the image of the finance industry was at an all time low, but it is amusing to see the different cultural allocations. At the last meeting they danced to Hootie & the Blowfish, now the time for the gospel choir from Harlem has come. The time has come to beat our breasts because the world is so bad. It is New Year’s Eve again, when one reflects on the year just gone.
One thing is certain: the crisis is the best thing that could have happened to us. Capitalism will not disappear because of it, but a discussing of ethics has emerged that goes far beyond functionalized corporate ethics. The old balance between Milton Friedman’s “the market is the best social program, in the long run the market is the great leveler” and John Meynard Keynes’ answer: “In the long run we will all be dead” (the state must intervene) is tending once again, towards state intervention, putting economic issues in the political and public limelight. Perhaps politics will find its way out of silent administrating and personalities with convictions as opposed to mere clerks, who think in terms of careers and efficiency, will once again emerge.
But back to wallowing in the mire of the crisis. The step from deriding bankers to greed as such still has to be made, and from there, further to the universal dominance of consumerism and the order to pay. It comes as no surprise that everyone wants more if all socially relevant values are traced back to promises of payment. The Promised Land has been placed in a shop window. Every now and then a window cleaner comes by to wipe away the nose-shaped stains from the glass. Moses, too, was only permitted to view the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, but not to enter. More likely than not, there are seven mountains in between, though probably none with caves full of treasures, but rather covered in application forms and superiors and supervisors. The enticement of consumerism behind the window panes are packaged at the bank counter: This is where the money is - or maybe not. In the face of the market we are all equal, that is the great achievement of the market society. But by dint of nature democracy stops at the bank counter. See Moses.
And another legend is brought to an end at this counter. The diversity of what is consumable is reduced to the infamous binary code: to pay or not to pay. All the talk of the double role of the consumer as cultural decision maker is of little value here. Consumerism has of course produced the incredible cultural variety of twenty thousand kinds of training shoes. And of course economic processes are governed by symbolic processes and hence, in a wider sense, by culture. But at the bank counter all is made countable: all heterogeneous objects are reduced by the market to quantity, and cultural differentiation will only be driven by the market where it can be turned into promise of payment.
As a rule, the ‘Open Sesame’-code has four digits and must be entered at the automatic teller machine. Ali Baba was the first con artist who spied out pin-codes. Why, for goodness sake, did the thieves not speak in low voices? However, just knowing the code is still no guarantee for success. For one, the cave could be empty. Or, as was the case in the story, one cannot find one’s way out again. Entering the treasure chest is like a shot of heroin. People go on about taking drugs with facial expressions laden with responsibility, but no one even mentions 8 by 10 meter advertising bills for cars. To be sure, consumerism is capitalism’s main weapon, and the fact faith does not dissolve itself to get hold of consumer goods almost drives the West to despair. If the crisis continues in the same manner as it has to date, vouchers for consumer products will soon be distributed and we talk about other things than new cars, we might get a chance to understand what makes people, for whom consumerism is not everything, and for whom religion or conviction might come first.
For some reason, however, the times do not point towards buying a car slipping on the scale of desirable things to do. You now receive 2,500 euros for buying a new car. This must surely go down as one of the most absurd, most cynical ideas in history. If, at least, something meaningful had been subsidized with the money. But cars! I see it as a sort of crisis-welcoming money, like the one hundred Deutsche Marks I received when the Wall came down. The East in general. This is the moment I cannot help but long for a specific quality of the GDR. Money played no role. No one had any anyway, or, if you like, everyone had the same amount; it is well known that it mattered little who paid the bill in the pub. I am of course not referring here to the macro-economic untenable nature of the state of things, nor to dictatorship and terror. This is about the mad feeling that money is of no importance. Not because one has too much or too little. The category was irrelevant - that is what was so inimitable and unbelievable, it was outrageous. It was dangerous. Most of the values that the current crisis is questioning even existed in the minds of most people back then.
The existence of values in minds is in fact fundamental. Between perception and reality lurks the abyss. The CDS constructions caused perception of the risks to disappear. As Bodo Kirchoff remarked, the re-labeling of loans to securities did just involve giving them a new name, it entailed far-reaching consequences. It is somehow, and ominously, reminiscent of the valuable goods recycling bin.
Besides the renewed discussion on ethics, the crisis has another good side: waste. Gigantic sums of money are being wiped out; no one is putting them in their own pocket. And that, yes that is culture. It is a gigantic celebration of one’s own potency, an orgiastic overspending. Why don’t people finally stop complaining, it is pathetic. The globe winces. It remains to be seen whether the West has taken Viagra and will continue hammering away. Otherwise sleep, grief and humility will follow. That too is wonderful.
Georges Bataille would be thrilled, and he surely is the patron of what is
happening, whom I have to honor by mentioning him in detail. In his Economy
of Waste he differentiates between productive and unproductive expenditure.
The ideal of utility in our society says that activity is only of worth if it can be traced back “to the fundamental demands of production and preservation” . Something is only useful if it is productive, which applies also to expenditure. In this context expenditure is only made if it serves the reacquisition of resources.
Unproductive expenditure, on the other hand - luxury, mourning ceremonies,
wars, cults, grand buildings, games, arts - are what define humans, for better
or worse, as cultural beings. According to Bataille, the problem lies in the
combination of between excessive energy and limited growth.
One could add, a little unorthodoxly, that the idea that money comes into the world as credit is, on the one hand, fundamental economics, but that as such it is potentially something that can be loaned on ad infinitum and as such multipliable and also means that money has something of unlimited excessive energy about it - comparable to Bataille’s wasteful cosmic energy.
Credit as cosmic energy. Not bad. So remember next time: do not play with things like this!
With Mehr Geld Ralph and Stefan Heidenreich have, in my opinion, written the best book on the crisis to date, pinpointing the problem with money as the ‘counting imperative’ that always goes up, and hence increases. One, two, three, four - this cries out for a five. And more! More!
Back to Bataille. Let us have a look at what then happens: the law that Bataille derives from combining excessive energy (including unlimited production) and limited growth: “In every system there comes a point, at which the excessive energy can no longer be directed towards growth and consequently must be used unproductively, i.e., must be squandered uselessly.” We are currently witnessing how this is done. And at this point I can, indeed must inform Blythe Masters that with CDS she created a performative art work of the highest order. The only reason Bourriaud failed to mention it in his Relational Aesthetics was because at the time it appeared it was not yet widely known.
I have kept an image to the end. It features a custom. This is attributed to
the indigenous peoples of the islands off the Pacific northwest of the USA,
made known by Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift .
Allow me to paraphrase: The custom consists of symbolic trade between tribes. A tribe works on a present for a year, a present for the clan of a neighboring village. A finely carved, fragile object is forged in thousands and thousands of working hours. On the celebration day the clan makes its way to the neighboring village, a procession with its chief leading, carrying the delicate, precious present himself. The neighboring village is expecting them. The chiefs come face to face, and the gifts are marveled at with many an “Aahhh!” and an “Ohhh!” Then the one chief dashes the gift on the ground in front of the feet of the other chief. Dash! - As Donald Duck, that great critic of capitalism, would put it.
So it is a grand gesture, this crisis. But: is there any other village at all? At whose feet is all this being dashed? It is at our own feet that it is beingdashed. And this, yes this is true greatness. Dash!
Or, to return to Ali Baba: Who are the mourners that come to Cassim’s funeral? And above all: who is the tailor?