JOSHUA CLOVER

NOTES ON THE MELTDOWN

THE PARALLELS OF THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL CRISIS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE INTERCONTINENTAL RAILROAD

DISCUSSED: Fifteenth-Century Currency, The Intercontinental Railroad, Geofinancial Space, Earnestly Drinking Cheap Beer, Impossibly Complex Derivatives, The Smell of Volatility and Fear, The Asian Flu, Anticapitalist Bedtime Stories, Predictive Power of Marxism and Socialism, Conjoining Finance Capital to Daily Life, Turtles, Many Economic Bubbles, The Neoliberal Project,The Nearly Obliterated Wachovia, Some Kid in West Africa Who Isn’t Even Born Yet

I. TWO GREAT TASTES
THAT GO GREAT TOGETHER

We could begin in fifteenth-century Genoa with the invention of fixed currency and modern banking, or with the first foreclosure of this current crisis just a couple years back. I’m going to begin near the middle: in the nineteenth-century United States, with banks and railroads.

Railroads being too pricey even for the well-heeled capitalist, banks that could provide grand lines of credit became major players. This concert of powers dominated the nation’s finances, extending the financial network even as they exerted increasingly centralized control. They were only too willing to loan the money forward, both for stakes in the enterprises and in the happy knowledge that the intercontinental railroad would open up new markets. Credit doesn’t just allow for such expansions; it requires them, to conjure its necessary returns.

The relationship was so intimate that sometimes it collapsed into singularity. Chartered in 1833, the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company built a then-lengthy line from Atlanta to Augusta; the firm survives as a real-estate concern. Its rail system now belongs to massive CSX Transportation; the banking division was a part of Wachovia, which was nearly obliterated this September and has under Federal duress recently merged with Wells Fargo, which started in 1852 as a transport and banking company. Two great tastes that go great together.

The salient point is this: that the expansion of the rail systems throughout physical space, sewing together the continental United States with threads of iron, was identical to the credit-fired expansion of financial networks. Not parallel developments, but one and the same. Geopolitical space and finance space are simply different dimensions of the same structure, the same unified market—what we might call geofinancial space.

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Joshua Clover’s most recent book of poetry, The Totality for Kids, is currently being translated into Polish; his critical book on The Matrix is forthcoming in Russian and French. He has just completed a book on pop music and the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (UC Press, 2009).

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