Paul Virilio on the financial crisis
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 17, 2008
For thirty years now, the philosopher Paul Virilio analyses the
catastrophe as the unavoidable consequence of technological progress. He
sees in the current financial crisis the most accomplished example of
his theory, a catastrophe where the victims do not actually die, but
lose the roof above their heads by the thousands.
Gerard Courtois/Michel Guerrin:
In 2002 you have produced an exhibition at the Maison Cartier under the
title “Ce qui arrive” (‘that what occurs’); It was about the accident in
contemporary history: Tchernobyl, 9-11, the Tsunami… A statement by
Hannah Arendt was the marker of your demonstration: “progress and
catastrophe are the two faces of the same coin”. Is this where we have
come to with the ‘crash of the stock exchange’?
Well, of course. In 1979, at the time of the mishap at the Three Mile
Island nuclear plant in the U.S., I did mention the occurence of an
“original accident” – the kind of accident we bring forth ourselves. I
said that our technical prowess was pregnant of catastrophic promises.
In the past, accidents were local affairs. With Tchernobyl, we have
entered the era of global accidents, whose consequences are in the realm
of the long term. the current crash represents the perfect ‘integral
accident’.Its effects ripple far and wide, and it incorporates the representation
of all other accidents.
For thirty years now, the phenomenon of History accelerating has been
negated, together with the fact that this acceleration has been the
prime cause of the proliferation of major accidents. Freud said it,
speaking of death: “accumulation snuffs out the perception of contingency”.
Contingency is the key word here. These accidents are not contingent
occurrences. For the time being, the prevalent opinion is that
researching the crash of the stock exchange as a political and economic
issue and in terms of its social consequences is adequate enough. But it
is impossible to understand what is going on if one does not implement a
(policy based on the) political economy of speed, the speed that
technological progress engenders, and if one does not link (this policy)
to the ‘accidental’ character of History.
Let’s take just one example: the dictum “time is money”. I add to this,
and the stock exchange testify to it: “speed is power”. We have moved
from the stage of the acceleration of History to that of the
acceleration of the Real. This is what ‘the progress’ is: a consensual
So accidents are too little researched?
The dominant form of writing about History limits itself to the study of
facts as seen in the light of the long term. Contrariwise, I advocate a
study of History based exclusively on ruptures. (French) Historian
Francois Hartog calls the dominant paradigm “presentism”. We must go
further. Our paradigm should be “instantaneism”.
In order to study accidents, one of course must research them, but also
‘expose’ them. The accident is ‘invented’, it a work of creation. Who
could be more apt than artists to make feel the tragic dimension of
human development (‘progress’)? That was the intent behind the “ce qui
arrive” exhibition – where, by the way, I did mention a stock exchange
crash. It stood for the museum, or the observatory, of major accidents
that I’d like to see coming about some day. Not in order to instill
fear, but to make us face up.
But then, how would you define the crash of the stock exchange, over and
beyond its surprise element?
Like with any contemporary event, it is essential to take into account
the integration in synchronous time of various issues at the
world-level. A synchronisation has taken place of customs, habits,
mores, ways to react to things, and also, of emotions. We have left the
era of class-based communitarism for that of instant and simultaneous
globalisation of affects and fears – but not longer of opinions. It was
already the case with the attacks on the World Trade Center and with the
Tsunami. The same happens now with the financial crash. After a short
‘technical’ phase – bank collapses, shares fall-out – kicks in a phase
of ‘hystery-isation’ of responses. There is talk of “markets going mad”,
of “irrational” reactions, you’d almost call it ‘end of the world
craze’. Terrorists have very well understood this mechanism, and they
make use of it.
Do you, like some people do, believe that capitalism is nearing its end?
I rather believe that the end is nearing capitalism. My field is urban
studies. This crisis shows that the Earth is not large enough for
progress, for the speed of History (as we have it). Hence repetitive
accidents. We were living in the belief that we had both a past and a
future. But ‘the past does not pass’, it has become a monster, so much
so that we do not mention it anymore. And as far as the future is
concerned, it is severely questioned by the issue of the environment,
and the end of natural resources like oil. So the only place left for us
to inhabit is the present. But the writer Octavio Paz said it before:
“you cannot live in the present moment, just as you cannot live in the
future”. It is exactly what all of us are now going through, and that
includes the bankers.
But did not the financial world bring about (invent) a virtual world?
Since speed earns money, the financial sphere has attempted to enforce
the value of time above the value of space. But the virtual is also part
and parcel of reality. And to be frank with you, this so-called virtual
world, in which one can also include tax-heavens, is a form of
‘exotism’ which I tend to equate with colonialism. It is the (recurrent)
myth of another inhabitable planet.
As opposed to other accidents, the crash of the stock exchange remains
something of an enigma to the public at large. Is this bad?
Well, one does not understand the fine points, but one can guess, and
that is enough. One must guess (about) what occurs. Not being able to
understand naturally reinforces fear. But, at the same time, we do not
longer have the time left to experience fear. What is really disturbing
is the rise of a ‘civil deterrence’ of sorts, which is individual and
intimate, and which permeates all aspects of life. We are being deterred
to do this or that as individuals. Ever since 9-11 we have been affected
by a ‘civil fear’, and the industrialisation of the accident is its root
cause. So, in order to study the impact of collisions, car makers stage
‘test crashes’. The crash of the stock exchange is such a test crash –
but at the real level. Even the break-up of relationships has been
industrialised. One could even introduce some mechanism of quotes for
divorces, risking hereby to show that the traditional couple and family
has become an illusion.
Could one also speak of a morality of the stock exchange crash, in the
sense that also those who were making fortunes get blasted?
I am not a vigilante. I do empathise with critics who say that some
people have made obscene profits. I do not deny the damage caused by the
accumulation of riches in a few hands. But to merely criticize this
acceleration of profits and History, this ‘run-away avarice”, as Eugene
Sue called it, while remaining in the materialist framework of profit,
is a deficient, reductionist analysis.
What is happening is much more complex, and profoundly disturbing. We
have gone into something of a different nature. This economy of wealth
has become an economy of speed. By the way, this is the problem the Left
is currently facing. The Left is stuck in its old framework, states that
capitalism is dead, and now thinks that more social justice is to come
about. This is a bit hasty a deduction. We do really have a major
problem on our plates…
If the state does not take stock of this ‘futurism of the moment’, we
might well see instead a capitalism running riot without bounds whatsoever.
You wrote once “By designing a 800 passengers plane, the firm Airbus has
simultaneously created 800 potential casualties”. But till now, the
crash of the stock exchange did not kill anyone…
The crash is not the Black Death, there haven’t been millions of
victims, and it’s not the 11th of September either. We are not talking
death here, save maybe a few suicides. The victims are somewhere else to
Where did the current crisis stem from? the answer is: subprime
mortgages; housing credit that proved unsustainable; land. The victims
are the hundred of thousands of people who are going to lose their
homes. The whole concept of sedentarism had already been challenged by
immigrants, exiles, deportations, refugees – and the delocalisation of
economic activities. This phenomenon is bound to increase. Till 2040,
one billion people will have to move out from their their residence.
Those are the victims. We are in the realm of “stop/eject”. People are
arrested, get expelled.
You believe in chaos?
Having destabilised the financial system, the stock exchange crash might
well destabilise the state, which is the guarantor of last resort of
collective life. For the time being, the state tries to be reassuring.
But if the bourses keep on heading South, it will be state itself that
will go in receivership, and that will plunge nations into chaos. This
is not me embracing catastrophism. I do not believe that the worst is
unavoidable, I do not believe in chaos, that is an untenable position,
and it amounts to intellectual arrogance. But that does not mean that
one should be prevented from thinking about it. Faced with absolute
fear, I counter with hope absolute. Churchill said once that an optimist
is somebody who sees opportunity hiding behind every calamity.
translated by patrice riemens
with thanks to apo33 in Nantes for providing facilitation.