When I was growing up ...

01 November 1996

Political economist Susan George said natural processes could not be hurried, and that we share a natural sense of speed (such as in speech, or non-cancerous cell growth). Otherwise, there's a danger of positive feedback. The moon slows the earth's rotation from 4 hours/day to 24. But Indo-European tradition rewards the fast castes and hierarchies of speed.
Farmers are the slowest caste and least regarded (they watch grain grow) - warriors are faster, there's mobility, competition, just-in-time management - priests are the fastest caste because of their symbolic speed in having direct access to God. Excessive social speed may destroy a society. This is why unifying concepts (e.g. Christianity) have traditionally been used to periodically slow it down. Capitalism's calendar does not replace these rest periods: seasons are conquered, agricultural capital (static) gives way to industrial capital (mobile, but still rooted in things) and finally to financial capital, which is purely virtual, and totally fluid.

"The globalised market, the forced march to NAFTA and the World Trade Organization - all this has contributed to creating a single "World time", a single world fast caste"

When I was growing up in the United States there was a comedy team on the radio called Bob and Ray. They had the same sense of the absurd as the later Monty Pythons in England. One of their sketches began like this: A... warm... welcome... to... the... annual... meeting ...of ...the ... Slow... Talkers... of... America (etc). Try talking that slowly for any length of time and you'll reduce your audience, as Bob and Ray did, to helpless laughter.

ButofcourseifItalklikethisyou'llhaveahardtimeunderstanding especiallyifyou'renotanativeEnglishspeakerandyou'llthinkI'mrude.

What I'm trying to say is that we have a natural sense of appropriate speeds in human communication and outside those parameters the reaction is likely to be one of hilarity or irritation. The human body too has its proper speed limits-tachycardia or accelerated heartbeat is bad news and cancer is characterised by too-rapid cell division. Natural processes cannot be hurried and the natural world relies on appropriate spans of time-to absorb our wastes among other things. If we accelerate the speed with which we discharge them, it is at our peril (for example, CO2). And thank heaven, literally, for the moon. If it weren't there supplying the gravity to slow down the earth's rotation, our days would last only about four hours, with constant gale-force winds. Such a rate of rotation would be much too rapid to support advanced forms of life, so none of us would be here debating speed. Nature seems to know what it's doing in the velocity department and clearly doesn't work on the principle that faster is better.

So it's perhaps somewhat mysterious that society-not just ours, but all societies, at least Indo-European ones-appears to work on a completely different basis from nature and to have accorded the greatest prestige, the greatest wealth, the greatest power and usually all three to their swiftest components, to those I will call the Fast Castes. The traditional division of Indo-European civilisations was based on castes of Agriculturalists, Warriors and Priests, which can all be analyzed in terms of speed.

Farmers are of course the slowest-and the least prestigious everywhere. They are rooted to a particular place and work with the seasons which are by definition slow. Watching grass-or any other plant-grow is a metaphor for utter boredom. It makes no difference that none of us could live without the patience and nurturing capacity of the peasantry-peasants are always at the bottom of the prestige ladder and one is hard pressed to think of any time in history when the food producers were also the rulers for more than a few days or months.

Mid-way in the speed sweepstakes are the warriors, who are certainly more mobile than agriculturalists although they may still be bound to some degree by the seasons. It's better by far to make war in the summer, as Napoleon learned to his cost in Russia where he was beaten by 'General Winter'. Warriors at least get out of the house part of the year, and they keep moving, since winning wars requires moving faster than your enemy. As Paul Virilio has so often shown, speed is the definitive advantage. Within the warrior caste, the bowmen beat the club-wielders, the horseman beat the foot-soldiers and the tank and the airplane beat them all, just as the electronic battlefield now prevails.

Fastest of all and first in the hierarchy are the priests who I would argue are at the top because of their symbolic speed, even if they remain physically in the same spot most of the time. Communication with the gods has to be instantaneous. Part of being divine is having the gift of ubiquity and to be in several places at once is the epitome of speed. Priests call on and interpret these divine beings who can be everywhere, anywhere at once. They often officiate on behalf of a divine ruler, like the Pharaoh who holds the whip to urge on the horses of the sun's chariot and the hook to hold them back. He is defined by his mastery of speed, just as social status for the less exalted is defined by their faster or slower pace. In the same way that too great physical speed could make the earth uninhabitable, excessive social speed could tear society apart. This may be why great organising principles, particularly religions, have served to prevent this. The best known example in the West is Christianity, which obliged all castes, whatever their relative speeds, to live within the same regulating liturgical calendar. This calendar had its long periods of slowness, of waiting, like Advent and Lent; its normal, pedestrian rhythms as in the long period after Pentecost; and its exciting, festive and accelerating movements of Christmas and especially Easter when Death itself is conquered between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning. In other societies, rhythms of the seasons and religions are used in similar ways to civilise the polity.

The modern or post-modern world is no longer ruled by religion but by the market and capitalism provides no such unifying, restraining principle. In rich, industrialised countries, the seasons have virtually disappeared, anything is available at any time. Capitalism has, historically, presented a parallel structure in time to that of Indo-European societies and their castes in space. We find once more a triad of successively different forms of capital: initially agricultural, then industrial and, finally, financial.

First came the domination of agricultural capital with wealth in the hands of landowners. Basically, agricultural capitalists are, speedwise, the same as peasants even though they're richer-rooted, fixed to a single spot, slow. They hang onto their base forever, there's no velocity to their lives or their money; selling land in many societies would be akin to selling one's mother. Today, land is depleted, forests are razed, aquifers are dried up and this devastation is counted not as the destruction and depletion it is but as income. Environmental, or natural capital is not even dignified by figuring properly our national accounts or in those of the World Bank's projects. Nature is just there to be used up.

Agricultural capitalists lost out in the 19th century to industrial capitalists who can be compared to the warrior caste. They too are more mobile, they fight, i.e. compete, and those who move fastest also win. Their speedy methods like Taylorism and 'Just in Time' procedures have become watchwords of productivity-one must always be light on inventories and keep the goods moving fast through efficient transport and information networks. These capitalists are of course more modern than the traditional warrior caste in the sense that they fight in all seasons, not just summer. But industrial capital is also to some degree archaic in so far as it cannot turn a profit unless it stays put somewhere for a while. Industrial capital can be removed from one place and reinvested in another, but not instantaneously. It too is grounded. Marx told us that Money must go via Commodities to make a profit, accumulate and become Money again (M->C->M->etc.).

No such constraints apply to Financial Capital which, like the priests of old, enjoys instantaneous communication with the divine, or in this case, with profit. $ is now hurtling around the globe daily. It has no roots and almost no connection to the production and distribution of actual goods and services-probably less than 5% of the $1.2 trillion is used for economic purposes other than the sheer manipulation of money. In Marx's formula, we no longer need the C-the Commodity phase, for M (Money) to accumulate: we can go straight from M->M->M-> ad infinitum.

Financial capital is pure speed and pure, immaterial profit. It makes instantaneous judgments on the values of national policies. If it doesn't like what it sees, it leaves, at the speed of bytes, leaving catastrophic consequences in its wake. In December 1994, billions of dollars were removed from Mexico in a matter of hours. The peso collapsed, interest rates were put sky high, over a million small businesses failed, unemployment is rampant, widespread hunger and malnutrition have returned, crime rates are alarming and kidnappings routine. It can happen in rich countries too. George Soros made a billion dollars in a couple of days speculating against the British pound and in July 1993 the French Central Bank lost the totality of its reserves overnight in a desperate attempt to prop up the franc against the onslaught of speculative capital. Like a supersonic fighter plane, financial capital can accelerate from zero to Mach three in a matter of seconds.

Third world countries still compete for Foreign Direct Investment, or industrial, medium speed capital; but more and more the World Bank and International Monetary Fund encourage them to seek to attract Portfolio Equity Funds (PEF), or foreign purchases of local stocks and bonds. PEF are volatile, hot money; they make your country vulnerable, as Mexico proved. But when your society can attract this Speed Money, it also means you've arrived: you are henceforward proudly termed an 'Emerging Market'.

What about those who can't keep up with Mach 3 investment funds, the people who get swept away by tornado capitalism? Karl Polanyi explained 50 years ago that the market is incapable of self-regulation, that left to itself, it has the ability to-and will-destroy society. Understanding this, 19th century England undertook reform to mitigate the manifold evils caused by Mach 2-industrial-capitalism. Our problem is to find a way to do the same for Mach 3, financial capitalism. This task is made all the more difficult because in must be undertaken internationally. No unifying religion or moral principle is on hand to provide a slow-down mechanism, or sanity and support.

The move from Agricultural to Industrial to Financial capital is also a form of acceleration and has huge consequences in other areas. The speed of depopulation of the countryside, the huge increase in unemployment in Europe, the tide of immigration, the rate at which all countries have been forcibly integrated into the globalised market, the forced march to NAFTA and the World Trade Organisation - all this has contributed to creating a single 'world time'; a single world Fast Caste. This Caste exercises what Virilio calls 'dromocratic power' from dromos, race. The fastest have, throughout history, been the most powerful. If the rest of us can't organise-with all deliberate speed-to curb and to counteract that power, the dromos will well and truly replace the demos and democracy. Absolute speed is absolute power, which is to say tyranny.