The Shock to Come: A Writer Takes on Economics and Finance

It is a short book -- barely 100 pages. Published by a small house (Les Liens Qui Libèrent). Available in good bookstores since the end of the summer -- and yet to be reviewed, as far as I know, in any newspaper or magazine.

François Meyronnis's manifesto on the true global crisis, entitled Proclamation sur la vraie crise mondiale, is certainly the best text available for those who seek to understand the mechanisms and inner workings of "globally integrated capitalism," which, instead of mediating between the two dominant and supposedly antagonistic models of the capitalistic system (the German and the Anglo-Saxon), pulverized and swallowed them both.

Meyronnis elaborates on five major intuitions.

1. While OPEC squirms, Putin complains, and Europe waves its flag, while the entire planet continues to play at the old game of pretending to wonder whether oil, gas, diverse and sundry shales and schists, or nuclear plants overflown by drones are the right energy for tomorrow, global capitalism has long been interested in one and only one form of raw material: data, that part of our being and our desires that is not only quantifiable but also trackable and that, by turning us into an opportunity for the exploitation and storage of an infinity of details, constitutes the true wealth of nations.

2. While the more or less orthodox supporters of the management of that wealth joust in regional, national, and global forums of power -- while in Europe (for example) the argument over austerity rages and the proponents of quantitative easing face off against those who urge that the money supply should be adjusted to the volume of other forms of wealth -- a hard reality has settled in: the reign of debt, the transformation of the world into a labyrinth of interlocking IOUs (a Ponzi scheme so huge as to make all the world's Madoffs green with envy), and the conversion of debt into a method of payment, an asset, a good -- not to mention a lever, as seen most prominently in the relations between the United States and China, where the latter can continue to produce only by allowing the former to continue living on credit.

3. While the antagonists of yesterday's struggles battle on, while Left and Right, unions and employers, all pretend to argue about the least bad methods of redistributing humanity's assets, a third power appeared in force at the moment the subprime bubble burst: The exploited are no longer the exploited but now are the minions of Debt. The humble are no longer the most vulnerable stratum of society but now form the base of the Pyramid. Because the labyrinth is both endless and bottomless the poor are no longer indigents but are now a form of wealth, a choice commodity, the most precious capital, the bargain of the century, the windfall of the Ponzi master -- an insult not only to ethics but to the very principles of realism and common sense.

4. Long term? Short term? Should we prefer the patience and long horizons of prudent, cautious reformers? Or big ideas and bold political gestures that purport to break with the past? Neither, says Meyronnis. Gone is the time when time chose its own rhythm and tempo. Gone is the dream of those who claimed to be able to give time more time -- the supreme luxury. In the age of immaterial money, of money as antimatter, in the light of a world whose law is no longer supply and demand but generalized debt, in this globalized and reticular capitalism in which the master has become synonymous with the world itself (as I put it not so very long ago in Barbarism with a Human Face), there is only one time: the nano-time of the nanoseconds it takes for market operatives to sell and buy -- to liquidate -- goods that have been reduced to "positions."

5. And the crisis? The next crisis of this system susceptible to every temptation? Inevitable, of course. But with two characteristics setting it apart from what we have come to know. The fact, first, that governments, having piled up debt in 2008 to clear the slates of the other players in the routed economy and plunged headfirst into the delusion of insane debt, will not be there this time to serve as lenders of last resort, as guardrails at the precipice. That governments, in other words, may be the first to be sucked up by the cyclone into the black hole. And, second, the fact that this remainderless sum that is capitalism without borders, this "everything flanked by nothing" articulated long ago by the Maharal of Prague and cited by Meyronnis, leaves no part of the world free of its ravages, meaning that no one, anywhere, will escape unharmed from the shock to come.

This beautiful book, with its references to Lao-Tzu and the great tradition of Jewish thought, with its meditation on an Acropolis in which the echo of the "people of the poets and thinkers" can no longer be heard, is not an economics textbook but, as readers will have gleaned, a writer's manifesto.

To take but two examples, it is a book that construes the rise of populism in Europe solely through Spinoza's theory of the sad passions, a book that explains the U.S. decision, made during the Nixon administration, to abandon the gold standard (making of the dollar a pure sign created from nothing and backed by nothing) only by alluding to Dante's remark about Philip the Fair's adulteration of the gold alloy contained in his currency.

Which is why Meyronnis tells us infinitely more about the onrushing disaster than do the self-proclaimed scholars of economics who, for a long time now, and like the object they study, have been as insubstantial as shadows.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy