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he question of how to grasp, challenge, critique the mobile, abstract and invisible nature of speculative capital is as old as the futures markets themselves. In the late nineteenth century, when options and futures were standardised and first traded on a large scale within new Exchanges such as the Chicago Board of Trade, the mobile, invisible, future-oriented trading practices were likened to gambling, considered to be trading in wind, or cast as the work of the devil. As bread prices fluctuated while grain speculation proliferated, a diverse alignment of Marxist, nationalist and religious commentators condemned and challenged the speculative markets. “While a few men really buy and sell wheat [on the Exchanges],” one New England preacher wrote in 1888, “the majority of speculators buy and sell promises….The paper contracts of the various Exchanges…[involve] billions of dollars…This enormous sum of money does not represent any benefit conferred upon the community, but is absorbed by the fortunate speculators without any return whatever.” Debate on the political legitimacy of financial speculation and the morality of futures trading was rife.
Today, debate on the politics and legitimacy of speculative practices is more muted and more difficult. At least, the nineteenth-century political opponents of the Chicago futures markets had visible enemies, imposing brick buildings and classic façades to direct their anger against. Today, the question of how to protest against deterritorialised, abstract, virtual, circulating, speculative capital has become much more complicated. This is not just because of the emergence of electronic, automated, algorithmic global trading, in which the iconic trading floors of the large Exchanges have given way to computerized visualisations of price fluctuations and yield curves. It is also because the dividing line between the financial participants and the excluded, between the traders and the victims, has become much more difficult to draw. If at the root of the current credit crisis are the ways in which ordinary household debts including mortgage payments and credit card receivables have been turned into speculative investment vehicles for the global financial markets – as Paul Langley has shown and analysed his excellent The Everyday Life of Global Finance – then we are (nearly) all implicated in the making of disaster. To name but one example, the Dutch pension funds, which hold the future income streams of millions of ordinary citizens – including government employees and university lecturers – are amongst the wealthy investors in the world.
But as financial markets continue their search for what Andrew Leyshon and Nigel Thift have called ‘the capitalization of almost everything,’ challenging the legitimacy of speculative practices is all the more important. Occupy anchors its anger at the doorstep of the Exchanges, the Financial Districts, the Investment Banks. Does it matter that ‘finance capital’ – whatever it may be – does not necessarily reside behind those doors? In Amsterdam, Occupy has occupied the Beursplein, location of on the one hand the contemporary Euronext Exchange and on the other, the famous nineteenth century Beurs van Berlage, where financial trading has ceased long ago in favour of cultural activities and conferences. At Euronext, floor trading has also ceased, but it is still the base for a number of investment companies, brokers and related institutions such as the Dutch Securities Institute. However, Beursplein represents only a fragment of contemporary financial power – the real home of which is perhaps better found in the unspectacular trading rooms of the large banks in the Amsterdam south district, at the aforementioned pensions funds or – in the European context – in London, Paris, Frankfurt.
It is perhaps not the absence of the defined agenda and clear list of demands that is the most striking feature of Occupy. Its striking feature is its impossible promise to anchor and call to account speculative practice. Its stasis and occupation contradict the mobility and fluidity of contemporary speculation. Its ambition to stay, to extend its presence, to remain immobile, interrupts the constant drive to commodification and circulation of investment capital. With the same people in charge of ‘solving’ the crisis as have participated in bringing it about, and while the international bond markets hold European politics hostage, Occupy has hit the right target – even if the derivative is impossible to locate and the culprit banker does not necessary reside behind the occupied doorsteps.