“History feeds upon history,” wrote Paul Valéry, looking back on World War II and the way European elites had organized their attempts to negotiate a radically uncertain present. Rather than confronting the novelty of their situation, he thought, they instead allowed their deliberations to be shaped by “imaginary memories” of what had gone before.1 With the breakdown of global finance that began in mid-2007, the world’s elites once again succumbed to the kind of historical-mindedness that concerned Valéry, invoking a string of past crises stretching from the dot-com crash in 2000 all the way back to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. Among these, however, it was the Great Depression that emerged as the key reference point, figuring repeatedly in the pronouncements of central banks, finance ministries, and international organizations.2 With the benefit of hindsight, this phenomenon can be grasped as a crucial dimension of what we now refer to as the subprime crisis. Beyond an alphabet soup of ABSs, MBSs, and CDOs, the events of 2008 brought with them a return of the Great Depression.3
At the time, this was registered in a number of ways. In the economics profession, there was a scramble to draw the correct policy lessons from the 1930s.4 Popular nonfiction was equally affected, with best-selling titles on The Bankers Who Broke The World during the interwar years, the coming Return of Depression Economics, and the need for policymakers to resurrect Keynesian methods of crisis management.5 In the trade presses, analogy emerged as the tool of choice for journalists, such that every new development came to be measured against a different phase of the Great Depression. By now the practice is such a cliché that anyone writing on the subprime episode must begin by noting how everyone else compared it to the 1930s. And yet so far, few have addressed the broader questions to which Valéry alludes. What, exactly, is the function of the past during times of apparent crisis? If this function depends less on the past itself than our recollections of it, then from where do these recollections come? If “history feeds on history,” how does this process play out? All of these questions directly pertain to the return of the Great Depression. On which versions of that episode did financial history feed, and what kind of histories did this feeding produce?
In this chapter, I argue that the day-to-day coverage of financial newspapers and magazines was integral to the way the subprime event was understood and responded to as a recurrent form of crisis. “Journalism,” as Financial Times editor Lionel Barber wrote in 2009, “is the first draft of history.”6 But because the ink of history never dries, every draft is always a work of redrafting. The past therefore functions within financial commentary not as a fixed and distant record (as in Oakeshott’s notion of “the historical past”), but instead as a shifting stream of recollections, parallels, and imputed affiliations, the purpose of which is to deal with a set of fundamentally pragmatic concerns (as in White’s take on “the practical past”). Under the press of “urgent and perplexing circumstances,” journalists sift through a reservoir of imagined histories, hoping to find in these something that might shed light on a muddled present.7 There is no guarantee, though, that the past will reveal the present in a new light. “Even when it is a question of dealing with an entirely new problem,” the imagination “casts around for precedents and yields to historical-mindedness,” such that the present can always appear as the return of a familiar event or pattern.8 This was very much the case during the late 2000s, when the pages of the financial press were littered not only with appeals to the Great Depression, but also with visions of financial history on the cusp of repeating itself. These visions reveal something strange about the place and power of the Great Depression within financial history. If the Depression was everywhere during the subprime crisis, it was because it seemed to possess a capacity to put the events of 2008 into historical perspective. Rather than simply presenting itself, the subprime crisis appeared through the lens of the Great Depression, and the result was an image of history’s process based on the perspectives associated with that earlier episode.
If I use the language of visuality here, it is to emphasize how elements of historical discourse, such as the idea of the Great Depression, actually mediate between appearance and essence in financial history, revealing a quasi-historical process that neither category is able to fully grasp. Art history provides an illuminating metaphor in this regard. During the height of landscape painting, it was common practice to use a convex tinted lens to help bring a view into perspective and reveal, as it were, the essence or truth of nature.9 In much the same way, droves of financial journalists turned to the 1930s, hoping that this uniquely structured event would enable them to unlock the mystery of the present and reveal the essential truth of history’s process. Yet as with the painter’s black mirror, the images produced were ones shaped by the observers’ positioning and choice of lens. Building on this metaphor, I argue that while the Great Depression acted as a privileged mediator between the historical present and visions of financial history as such, this mediation took place through different versions of the 1930s, resulting in various, and sometimes contradictory, visions of historical recurrence. During the height of systemic fear in 2008 and 2009, these visions seemed to help save financial capitalism from itself, securing the conditions needed for its ongoing reproduction. But at the same time, the contradictions between them opened up a fissure in elite discourse, specifically on the question of the state’s proper role regarding the financial industry. In this way, the idea of the Great Depression has functioned as a paradoxical force, holding out a promise of ordering events into cycles and phases reminiscent of nature, while simultaneously unleashing into the world all the patternings of financial history we can possibly imagine.
In order to develop this argument, it is necessary to first address the significance of mass media in relation to economic and financial history. Chapter 2 touched on the question of media in connection with Hayden White’s account of the historical event, but here I situate the mediated status of the event within the Marxist tradition of theorizing culture. This tradition is an important precursor to White’s diagnosis of “modernist reality,” presenting a series of grand visions in which the historical development of media transforms the historicity of life under capitalism. Beyond their own projected end points and horizons, these visions provide a means of beginning to grapple with the productive power of the Great Depression. Uncovering this involves a move from the histories of media and capitalism, through the concept of mediation, to an account of history premised on the mediations of contemporary financial society.
If there is one thing that defines Western Marxism, it is a conviction that media and capitalism must be conceived in terms of their intertwinement. This can be seen by way of a simple contrast with Marx’s spatial metaphor of base and superstructure.10 Though Marx meant to distinguish a primary domain of economic production from a secondary or reflective space of culture, media, and the like, each side of his equation contaminates the other. Information and communication technologies are clearly implicated in the development of different modes of production. The printing press, for example, was as integral to the birth of a market for news commentary and fiction as it was to the growth of mass culture qua culture, and many have argued that mass-market novels were themselves integral to the rise of capitalist finance.11 Electronic communication technologies were also a key spur to the Third Industrial Revolution, which ushered in a new era of global finance, along with a range of new markets for informational and cultural products.12 And yet print and broadcast media have been implicated in the re-production of corporate and state power since at least the turn of the century, whether through advertising and salesmanship or news and propaganda.13 The Ford Motor Company, for example, began taking out color lifestyle ads in 1924, while Gabriele D’Annunzio, Italy’s flamboyant poet-at-arms, was dropping pamphlets over disputed lands from as early as 1915.14 In this way, the opposition between base and superstructure breaks down. Media technologies defy the classical model not simply by belonging to both domains at once, but also by revealing the cultural character of economy.
This is precisely why Western Marxists turned to the concept of “mediation.”15 György Lukács was one of the first to do so, using it to theorize the organizing powers of culture as such. Everything, he argued, was mediated by bourgeois culture, and the mediations performed by specific technologies were to be understood as constituent parts in a broader process of ideological mystification.16 Lukács was famously paranoid but influential nonetheless. As John Guillory points out, some of the key divisions within Western Marxism can be traced back to the uptake of the mediation concept, and in particular to the way it influenced the project of ideology-critique.17 For Frankfurt school theorists such as Theodor Adorno, mediation became the name for a theoretical task that sought to wrest a possibility of change from the culture industry and its reified image of the world.18 But for those on the French New Left, such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, the modern apparatus of cultural mediation had to be understood as the basis for an entirely new kind of reality—the real unreality of the spectacle or the hyperrealism of simulation. Standing Marx on his head, they maintained that the realm of appearance had effectively replaced that of production, giving rise to a “base-less” regime of representation in which the order of signs and images functioned as both an anchor and a horizon for capitalist society. “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image,” and yet it is “in the sphere of the simulacra . . . that the global process of capital is founded.”19 With the advent of mass media, then, capitalism had been transformed into a grand tautology.
The discovery of this tautology was accompanied by a significant reappraisal of history. For Debord, the spectacle was the beginning of a “paralyzed history,” devoid of historical consciousness and thus condemned to an “eternal present.”20 His stance on the matter was clear: this was not a good development. Yet he would frequently voice a desire to find tactical sites and levers that might somehow bring history back to life. Baudrillard expressed no such hope. Having relinquished any sense of nostalgia, he saw the progressive logic of representation as having produced an exit from history altogether. The prevailing regime of appearance, he argued, was one in which events have been divested of all belonging to chronology and the real, and there is simply no way of going back: we are stuck in a system that simulates history rather than obeys it.21 This is what separates Baudrillard from Debord, the question of whether history has a future. But there are important commonalities in terms of the steps in their analysis. Both were in agreement, for example, that the dynamism of early capitalist history had given way to a strangely fluid stasis. Each also saw this as the product of a systematic logic of representation, grounded in the irresistible power of new mass media. The result is a diagnosis that does more than reposition media within capitalist history. With Debord and Baudrillard, mediated capitalism threatens the very consistency of history.
In the context of contemporary finance, this threat has played out in decidedly ambiguous terms. At first glance, the age of derivatives and securitization has in many ways been an age without history. Finance in general has become a timeless media spectacle, figuring forth as “a never-ending series of daily stories” and a “cacophony of voices, images and events.”22 Meanwhile, new interactive media have exacerbated an already mimetic market rationality, turning financialized accumulation into a hyper-real loop of reflexive performance.23 Finally, there is the truly peculiar case of option-pricing models (which were integral to the creation of a market for subprime mortgage-backed securities). These models envisage their own end to history in the form of a market-completion fantasy, which imagines that derivatives might one day create “fungible prices for all times, places and things.”24 We are still far from such a day, but as financial models have been embedded in market practice through successive waves of new media (beginning with printed tables and culminating in the computerized platforms of contemporary securities trading), market dynamics have come to increasingly reflect or register the workings of numerical formulas—perhaps not an implosive absorption of the real by the code, but at the very least a form of bricolage that replaces history with a succession of equations.25
On a second look, however, history refuses to disappear. If it had ever been neutralized, obliterated, or concealed, then the crisis of 2008 marked its reincorporation into the financial imaginary. The web-like markets for risk, the cascading automatism of their undoing, the constant news bulletins about this very process: none of these were able to repress what Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett referred to as a sudden and “violent thirst for historical knowledge.”26 Names and dates from the past burst into the present, circulating as so many omens and lodestars of what lay ahead. But more than any other episode, it was the Great Depression that captured the financial imagination, emerging not simply as one among many but the signal event, as if the name itself promised to deliver the present over to a time before models and screens had vanquished history.27 Nowhere was this more evident than in the pages of the financial press.
During the subprime episode, financial newspapers and periodicals were awash with different versions of the 1930s. Well-known and widely circulated specialist publications, such as the Economist, the Financial Times, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal, repeatedly published editorials and opinion pieces drawing comparisons to the Great Depression.28 These appeals were varied in nature, touching on and in some cases speaking directly to a range of specific policy debates. A significant proportion of them, however, entailed the suggestion of a recurring set of conditions or dynamics, such that the idea of the Great Depression carried within it that of history repeating itself. The return of the Great Depression should be understood in terms of this doubled character. In addition to the literal return of the Great Depression to financial language and discourse, there was also a second, figurative return, in which the 1930s were invoked in ways that envisioned their recurrence in either the present or some near future. The significance of this double return consists in the way it turns visions of recurrent crisis, long prominent in economic and financial discourse, into a means of mediating between the Great Depression and the subprime event. In empirical terms, at least three such visions emerge alongside the broader imaginaries of crisis and recovery. The first rests on the figure of the cycle, the second on that of the epoch, and the third on a related figure of reversal. In each case, the Great Depression allows journalists to see in the present a replay of some familiar pattern, but when these instances are taken together, they reveal the power of the press to produce financial history in diverse and ultimately contradictory ways. The following sections trace out this process in real time.
Cyclical thinking has long dominated liberal economics and financial theory in particular. It should come as little surprise, then, that the figure of the cycle would be the first that journalists reached for during the subprime years. From as early as mid-2007, references to the 1930s as a cyclical event begin to emerge across the financial press, effectively relaying markets as reaching a natural inflection point. The Economist, for example, does this by citing the response of American banker Leon Fraser to the 1929 crash: “Better to have loaned and lost than never to have loaned at all.”29 Fraser’s quip is well known within investment circles for capturing an appropriate answer to the enduring reality of the business cycle. Its quotation by the Economist therefore casts developments in the housing market as yet another inevitable correction, simply the latest installment in a long series of booms and busts.
Numerous variations on this theme appear throughout 2007, when a certain denial about the gravity of the situation still holds sway. One of the more interesting examples comes from Gillian Tett, who observes that although “few pundits have attempted to suggest . . . a replay of the best-known drama of all—1929,” a certain return of the past is nevertheless underway as investors “reacquaint themselves with the unpalatable truth that almost every bubble is accompanied by a belief that innovation has changed the rules”—“a belief,” she adds, that “typically proves to be false.”30 In this formulation, the Great Depression figures as a kind of limit event against which the normal course of boom and bust can be ascertained. Tett acknowledges the specificity of the 1929 crash, but she does so only in order to assert the same psychology of boom and bust expressed in Fraser’s aphorism—a psychology that is itself integral to the idea of natural cycles in finance.31 And so the crash of 1929 again serves to emphasize the familiar and unavoidable aspects of the subprime meltdown and not its historical specificity. This logic even applies to recurrence itself, which is not so much a unique development as something that just happens over and over again.
Things begin to change as the sense of crisis deepens in early 2008. Following the rescue of Bear Stearns in March, some publications start drawing parallels with the 1930s as an epochal moment in financial history. First and foremost among these is the Economist, which identifies a string of similarities between the two episodes, focusing in particular on the scale of the asset bubble collapse, the extension of emergency support to an investment bank, and the rate of decline in US house prices.32 It later goes on to read this last factor as symptomatic of a failing American capitalism.33 Meanwhile, the Financial Times takes the International Monetary Fund’s description of events—“the largest financial shock since the Great Depression”—and situates this alongside emerging threats of geo-monetary disorder, announcing the arrival of a decisive turning point in the management of the world economy.34 This transition reflects a move beyond the historical data sets associated with financial economics, such that efforts to interpret the present come to draw not only on price comparisons but also a broader set of political and economic histories. In particular, journalists begin to retrieve and reinstitute earlier historical accounts in which the Great Depression features as a pivotal event in the story of global capitalism. The result is a vision of recurrence quite distinct from the one associated with the figure of the cycle. Rather than another in a long line of market corrections, the subprime meltdown now appears as the potential return of a more virulent strain of historical crisis. Certainty slides into speculation, and recurrence starts to take the form of an open question: Can it happen again? Will it happen again?
Interestingly, this vision of recurrence does not immediately take off, and for some months, it remains latent or at least counterbalanced by the commentary provided in the pages of Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. In early 2008, for example, Forbes repeatedly rejects comparisons to the 1930s as overblown: “Gloomy people are saying that we are in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. They said the same thing in 1998. Bullish!” It goes on to expand the point, putting it in more general terms: “You can’t find a time in the 20th century when, less than five months into a real global bear market, people were talking bear market and recession in any visible numbers. But they always talk disaster during corrections.”35 The message, of course, is that such comparisons with the 1930s are themselves a product of cycles in investor sentiment, of the kind we’ve seen before and will see again.
Both US publications also begin to address fears of epochal crisis through the use of direct counteranalogy. For the Wall Street Journal, another 1930s-style depression would require a return to the “major policy blunders” of that era, which it suggests have yet to prove forthcoming.36 Meanwhile, for Forbes, the lack of protectionism and use of expansionary monetary policy already signal the existence of a different policy landscape to that of the 1930s.37 The Wall Street Journal also focuses on key economic indicators, pointing out how US mortgage delinquency rates are not nearly as high as they were in the 1930s, and both growth and employment figures not nearly as low.38 This line of argument culminates in an article published at the peak of crisis fever, entitled “We’re Not Headed For a Depression.” In it, author and Chicago economist Gary Becker explicitly dismisses suggestions of an epochal crisis, observing how “the crisis that kills capitalism has been said to happen during every major recession and financial crisis ever since Karl Marx.”39 In none of these instances, he argues, did it ever arrive, and so people would do well to start recognizing the ongoing crisis for what it is: a natural phase within the cyclical process of business and finance. In this rather extreme view, history is in no danger of repeating itself because history is itself nothing more than a recurrence of cyclical ups and downs. Indeed, the only real danger is that governments might fail to recognize this and respond to these cycles in misguided ways.
Although they do not disappear entirely, visions of benign recurrence give way in late 2008 to fears that capitalism is entering into another epochal crisis. Rather than supporting cyclical readings of the subprime event, appeals to the Great Depression increasingly emphasize its status as a specific and properly historical episode, bringing the weight of its received consequences to bear on the present in the form of various imagined futures. As I have already suggested, this shift entails a transition from the kind of knowledge associated with financial markets (in which the past consists of so many data points from which to extract patterns) to the kind of knowledge cultivated by historical discourse (in which the past acquires the form of a story or plot). The Great Depression figures within the latter as an event already enshrined in the story of capitalism, affiliated through various historical narratives with a whole host of political and economic trajectories. During 2008 and 2009, these affiliations are taken up and put to work by journalists as a means of situating the present within a history marked by epochal crises. This occurs through a number of distinct rhetorical maneuvers.
As Vico long ago argued, the work of rhetoric is not simply to persuade but rather to conjure up a persuasive reality. In the present context, two key maneuvers are involved in conjuring up visions of epochal recurrence. First, there are analogies with the scale and scope of the Great Depression. The Economist begins drawing these in mid-2008 following the bailout of Bear Stearns, but after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in early September, the other publications join in, and all begin making numerous and frequent comparisons with the 1930s. Forbes, for instance, considers a massive consumer retrenchment in the United States on a par with that of the 1930s, while the Wall Street Journal focuses on the scale and persistence of US stock market losses, which it suggests are comparable only to those of December 1931.40 For their part, both the Financial Times and the Economist emphasize the spread of financial market panic beyond the confines of the United States,41 and in a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal identifies a threat of “global stag-deflation” that would see the macroeconomic dynamics of the Depression replayed on the world stage.42
In these examples, analogical reasoning works to attach different attributes of the Great Depression to the present, such that the latter begins to accumulate a set of affiliations with the former as an episode of epochal crisis. In this way, analogy establishes the figure of epochal recurrence as a question in the public mind. But in order for this question to be posed both in and to the present, the idea of epochal recurrence must be invested with some kind of determinate content. What, exactly, might happen again? Analogies of scale and scope alone cannot achieve this. This is where a second rhetorical maneuver comes into play, by which various appeals to the causes and consequences of the Great Depression work to fill out the figure of epochal recurrence in more concrete terms. Again there is considerable variety in this regard, but two themes do emerge as dominant motifs. The first relates to questions of international trade, the second to those of political instability and war.
References to trade first appear in mid-2007, when Forbes uses the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 to illustrate the self-defeating effects of protectionism.43 These remain relatively isolated instances until mid-2008, when both Forbes and the Economist start applying this kind of lesson to contemporary developments in trade policy. It is not until late 2008, though, that journalists begin bringing trade-focused accounts of the 1930s to bear on the fallout of financial market instability. The earliest and most basic references of this sort simply assert the importance of keeping world markets open. Forbes, for example, reiterates its claim that “the Depression was actually triggered by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff,” and the Wall Street Journal uses this same claim to underline the need to address stalled multilateral negotiations.44 Meanwhile, the Economist links the question of trade to resurgent debates over the future of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, insisting that “the free movement of non-financial goods and services should not be dragged into the argument—as they were, to disastrous effect, in the 1930s.”45
These lessons are all derived from a liberal account of the interwar years that has dominated academic economics for some time now, and so at this point, the practical past is more or less indistinguishable from the historical past. The contemporary lesson, as it were, is essentially the same as the one encoded into established accounts of the Depression. But as the fear of a collapse in trade is hooked up to novel aspects of the contemporary economic and political landscape, the old lesson begins to take on new urgency and significance. The Financial Times, for example, identifies global imbalances as a potential driver of protectionism, arguing that “if the surplus countries do not expand domestic demand relative to potential output, the open world economy may even break down,” adding, “As in the 1930s, this is now a real danger.”46 The Economist focuses instead on possible transmission mechanisms, pointing out that global supply chains “could be disrupted by policies much less dramatic than the Smoot-Hawley Act.”47 Finally, both the Economist and Forbes counsel against any complacency regarding a repeat of Smoot-Hawley, identifying proposed “Buy American” provisions in the US stimulus package as an ominous harbinger of futures to come.48 In each of these instances, lessons drawn from conventional accounts of the 1930s reveal history to be heading down a familiar and dangerous path. Epochal recurrence becomes imminent threat.
An exaggerated version of this process can be identified in references to political instability and war. Once again Forbes takes the lead, arguing that “the Great Depression made possible the rise of Nazism and the Second World War.”49 This, again, is a rather conventional narrative of the Depression, but as the sense of crisis deepens in late 2008, other publications begin to echo this account in slightly different ways. For example, while Forbes continues to restate its case, using the legacy of Nazism to warn against a turn away from free and open markets in the United States, the Financial Times instead invokes “Hitler’s rise” and “the horrors a depression might bring” in order to urge Congress to rethink its rejection of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s rescue plan for the financial sector.50 Convergence does emerge, however, around a related trope in which the figure of epochal recurrence is rendered in geopolitical terms. This first to do this is the Wall Street Journal, which maps a threat of instability onto the present by comparing the leaders of contemporary “rogue states” to the “remorseless fanatics who rose up on the crest of economic disaster” during the Great Depression.51 The Financial Times performs a similar maneuver in early 2009 when it locates in the present another “grave threat to world stability and democracy,” pointing out that “revolutions often start as bread riots.”52 Finally Forbes joins in too, emphasizing the importance of an engaged and free-trading United States by casting Latin American populism as the latest threat to liberal democratic capitalism:
At that time [the 1930s] there was a region in play: Europe. A self-involved U.S. turned inward, allowing Mussolini and Hitler free rein. Today Latin America is in play, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is waiting in the wings, ready to fill the post-Castro vacuum.53
In each of these instances, the specter of another Great Depression takes the form of a potential slide into political instability and war. But as this last example illustrates, this particular fear of epochal recurrence is in no way incompatible with that of another collapse in trade. Rather, because trade functions within these visions as a cause and war as an effect, the one figure of recurrence in many cases already entails the other. That is, while not every vision of another Great Depression emphasizes trade-related dynamics, those that do draw their force from an implicit link between protectionism and some set of outcomes deemed worthy of averting, here fleshed out in extreme form by the figure of another Hitler on the horizon. Comparing someone to Hitler is by most accounts a pretty cheap rhetorical trick. And yet the logic is entirely in keeping with the way fears of epochal recurrence acquire their force, whether they relate to international trade, to war, or both. By transposing a chain of causal claims from the past into the present, cause and effect become scrambled, allowing the projected effect to undo the cause before it manifests. This is one of the ways “history feeds upon history”: as an injunction to keep the mistakes of the past in the past. “Never again,” as the saying goes.
Epochal recurrence is not invoked with quite the same energy once the sense of crisis begins to abate in mid-2009. But rather than disappearing altogether, visions of recurrence continue to produce affiliations between ongoing events and those of the 1930s. Three specific developments contribute to this process.
First is a shift away from visions of imminent epochal recurrence. This can be traced as far back as late 2008, when all four publications start incorporating crisis-response measures into counteranalogies with the 1930s, but it is not really until early 2009 that these take off. The London Group of 20 (G20) Summit in April is pivotal here, providing some sections of the press with new faith in the powers of liberal internationalism. Soon after the landmark meeting, both the Economist and the Financial Times begin to regularly emphasize the scale and scope of various measures enacted by policymakers, suggesting that these have reduced the likelihood of another Great Depression. The Economist, for example, speaks of “the biggest and most synchronized macroeconomic stimulus since the Second World War,” while the Financial Times adds to this “the most far-reaching socialization of market risk in history.”54 Both also use these same measures to express concerns about the need for exit strategies, but the basic point is still reiterated throughout the latter half of 2009. The Economist puts it succinctly: “It has become known as the Great Recession. . . . But an equally apt name would be the Great Stabilisation.”55 “It,” of course, is ‘the crisis,’ which through sheer force of policy support is now seen as no longer worthy of its old epithet: “the next Great Depression.”
Second is the emergence of a new variation on the figure of epochal recurrence. This can be observed in references to protectionism, which begin to take on a different form as fears of another Depression subside. There is still the occasional reference to trade collapse as a “really existing” threat, but on the whole, these are pushed into the past tense, where they instead name a threat that “really existed” but has since been overcome. The Economist, for example, argues that although “trade has contracted by more in this crisis than it had at a comparable stage of the Depression . . . [there is] little doubt that the decline in trade has bottomed out.”56 Meanwhile, even Forbes, the publication most critical of US trade policy, backs away from its earlier predictions of a return to the 1930s, claiming that “[al]though Barack Obama is the most protectionist President since Herbert Hoover, we are not likely to pass another Depression-creating Smoot-Hawley-like tariff bill.”57
This same change is also evident in references to political instability and war. These become far less common in late 2009, but when Forbes and the Financial Times do revisit the theme, their discussion is inflected with a palpable sense of relief. For Forbes, this rests primarily on what it sees as a lack of “credible alternatives to traditional democratic liberal values,” which it suggests has kept the “ghastly ideologies” of the 1930s at bay.58 However, in the case of the Financial Times, this argument is incorporated into a much broader counteranalogy with the early 1900s:
The good news is that the world has not made mistakes as big as those that followed the noughties a century ago: thanks, partly to nuclear weapons, direct conflicts among great powers have been avoided; a liberal world economy has survived, so far; the lessons of the 1930s were applied to the financial crisis of the 2000s, with at least short-run success . . . [and] while the movement towards democracy of the early 1990s has slowed, the number of grossly malign totalitarian regimes is now small, at least by the standards of the 20th century.59
Here, against a similar geopolitical and ideological backdrop to the one depicted by Forbes, two specific explanations are offered for why the subprime crisis was not as deep as the Great Depression. First, “the open liberal world economy has survived,” and second, “the lessons of the 1930s were applied.” In both instances, the 1930s are used to illustrate how a threat to political stability was overcome rather than to indicate the existence of any such threat in the present. Visions of imminent epochal recurrence are in this way gradually neutralized via broad counteranalogies, as well as more specific references to both trade and war.
It is important to note, however, that what takes their place remains a vision of recurrence and that this new vision rests on a largely unchanged reading of the 1930s. With references to war, for example, there is agreement on what it is that might happen again—gulags, concentration camps, the end of the world, and so on. Meanwhile, with references to trade, there appears to be agreement on how this might happen again, for a link between tariffs and the Great Depression is affirmed not only at the height of the perceived protectionist threat but also in its aftermath. The key difference, then, concerns when all of this might happen again. Is history threatening to repeat itself tomorrow, or are we just reminding ourselves that it might at some point in the future? With this in mind, early references to trade and war can be understood as the beginning of a process through which latent visions of epochal recurrence, based on hegemonic historical narratives, were called on by actors in the global financial press and transformed into visions of imminent epochal recurrence. Conversely, the shift that occurs in late 2009 can be read as a kind of becoming latent, whereby fears of epochal recurrence were returned to the storehouse of history via counteranalogy and the use of past participles.
Finally, there is a reemergence of references to the 1930s that underpin a vision of cyclical recurrence. The figure of the cycle was crowded out in late 2008 when publications began drawing instead on that of epochal recurrence, but it was never abandoned entirely. In fact, during the months following the Lehman bankruptcy, all four publications incorporate the 1930s into a contrarian and opportunistic reading of the business cycle on at least one occasion.60 In late 2009, however, both Forbes and the Wall Street Journal return to this figure, retroactively rejecting the prospect of another Great Depression and announcing instead the arrival of a new bull market. In August, for example, Forbes dismisses recent stock market dips by identifying 1935 as the only bull market that did not encounter “some material indigestion within its first twelve months.”61 Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal recalls the bear market trough of 1932, pointing out how “investors who had the courage to invest realized handsome long-term gains.”62 In each instance, references to the Great Depression once again serve to emphasize the familiar and cyclical aspects of the now receding crisis event. Thus, at the same time as there is a shift away from fears of imminent epochal recurrence, there is also a parallel shift back toward the figure of the natural cycle and the kind of recurrence this entails. The only difference is that this is now achieved by retrospectively identifying an inevitable upswing rather than assessing the immediate prospect of another downturn.
While the figure of cyclical recurrence is rooted in a particular understanding of investor sentiment, the figure of epochal recurrence is based instead on a reading of how trade policy once threw democratic capitalism into crisis. In this sense, these two figures relate to the domains of the market and the state, respectively. But as various emergency measures are enacted in response to the prospect of another Great Depression, a third set of visions emerges in which the present appears as a recurring moment of pendulum-like reversal in the relation between state and market. Unlike the cycle or the epoch, the figure of reversal produces a division within the financial press as individual publications come to take rather different views on the political legacy of the subprime episode.
This process can be traced back to January 2008, when Forbes portrays the initial provision of relief to subprime borrowers as a turn for the worse in terms of policy orientation. Comparing this move to Hoover’s attempts to secure a voluntary freeze on redundancies and wage cuts in 1929, it suggests that the Treasury-backed plan “follows bad precedents made during the Great Depression.”63 It continues in this vein as further crisis-response measures are enacted, casting both Hoover and Roosevelt as symbols of a more generic and recurrent form of misguided interventionism. In June, for example, it argues that the “myth” of a passive Hoover and an activist Roosevelt is skewing US electoral debates and that Obama’s proposed policies risk repeating their respective mistakes not only on trade but also on tax and bailouts.64 It also reiterates this same point in early September, describing Obama as a dangerous “Hoover-FDR hybrid” whose activism would leave “the punitive power of natural economic forces . . . deadened and restrained.”65 Thus, as fears of epochal recurrence mount, Forbes suggests that a cyclical downturn might indeed be transformed into another Great Depression, but only with a reversion to 1930s-style interventionism. The Wall Street Journal adopts a similar position in response to the bailout of insurance giant AIG, arguing that the risks of “socialized finance” are clearly illustrated by “the record of the Depression-era Reconstruction Finance Corp.”66 On this view, the only true route to recovery lies in a new bear market.
It is not long, however, before this nascent vision is inverted by both UK publications, which cast the initiatives of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve in a decidedly different light. The Economist, for example, explicitly rejects “predictions of a sea change towards more invasive government,” arguing that the deployment of public money should be seen as reducing the likelihood of a 1930s-style reversal: “If Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke have prevented a Depression-like collapse in output with their actions,” it reasons, “then they may also have prevented a Depression-like backlash against the free market.”67 Meanwhile, the Financial Times directly counters the position taken by Forbes on Hoover and Roosevelt, characterizing the US legislators who blocked Paulson’s Troubled Asset Relief Program as irresponsible liquidationists who “should realize that now is not a time for Hoovernomics.”68 Of course, neither the Financial Times nor the Economist denies that a “redrawing [of] the boundaries between government and markets” is underway, and both acknowledge that precisely such a redrawing followed the Depression.69 The point, however, is that they do not interpret state rescues as another turn away from markets. Instead, they see them as the proper response to a recurring paradox: sometimes bank failure means that government has no choice but to “Nationalise [in order] to save the free market.”70
At the peak of market turmoil, both US publications somewhat soften their views on the dangers of governmental intervention. Forbes, for example, concedes that “emergency measures may have been necessary,” but still worries that these could create Washington’s “biggest power expansion since the New Deal.”71 Similarly, the Wall Street Journal accepts that in exceptional circumstances, “radical government policies should be considered,” but it continues to argue that “many . . . including several pursued by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression . . . can make things worse.”72 However, once fears of epochal recurrence give way to extensive international cooperation, both return to a more unambiguous stance. Following the London meeting of the G20, for example, the Wall Street Journal uses the 1930s to diagnose and decry an ongoing, global process of historical reversal:
The Depression put in motion an historic tension between public and private sectors. . . . After 50 years of public dominance, Reagan’s presidency tipped the scales back toward private enterprise . . . [but for] every waking hour of this economically liberal era, the losing side has wanted to tip the balance back. . . . The opportunity to achieve that goal finally arrived—with the Great Recession of 2009.73
Here the Great Depression is portrayed not simply as an event that might repeat itself, but also as the origin of a tug-of-war between statist and pro-market forces. Moreover, within this particular patterning of history, the subprime crisis is revealed as an event through which statists are seeking to repeat the reversal they achieved in the 1930s. Forbes performs a similar move in late 2009, when it once again compares existing US policy to the New Deal, and then describes the latter as having kicked off “a decade of contest between an ambitious public sector and a dazed private sector.”74 With both Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, then, visions of epochal recurrence mutate into explicit fears about another reversal in the relation between states and markets, such that business would once again be hampered by the doings of government.
Elsewhere, visions of reversal continue evolving along different lines. Although both the Economist and the Financial Times do start to identify some risks associated with new state powers and responsibilities, neither comes to question the necessity of their introduction in relation to the subprime episode.75 The figure of reversal thus continues to reveal a recurrent danger that accompanies state inaction; in addition, it also serves to designate an outcome that has been averted by timely intervention. For the UK-based publications, then, there is consensus that governments helped save financial capitalism from itself. This stands in stark contrast to the pronouncements of the US-based publications, which essentially suggest that if capitalism survived the crisis, this was in spite of misguided public actions. The process at work here is one in which the same basic of figure of reversal is fleshed out using different narrativizations of the 1930s, such that the present assumes a place within two diametrically opposed historical trajectories. The result is a significant split within the financial press over the future of the capitalist state. Such is the peculiar power of the Great Depression, whose status within the discourse of financial history seems just as capable of undermining order as producing it. It is to this broader process that I now turn.
How should we grasp the historical function of the Great Depression? The most common way to approach this question is through visual metaphor. Financial journalists have employed this trick on numerous occasions. During 2008, for example, the Economist began one of its article sections by inviting readers to view “Smoot-Hawley in the rear mirror.”76 As we all know, the purpose of a rear mirror is to keep a receding horizon in view, specifically so as to better comprehend the situations one is entering. In historical terms, the equivalent would be a process by which past events like the Depression help provide a fuller picture of the present. But as I have shown, the subprime episode brought with it numerous versions of the Great Depression, suggesting that the Depression cannot function as the simple mirror point that journalists and others may want it to. Financial historians have acknowledged as much, devoting considerable attention to the different kinds of analogies with the 1930s drawn by pundits and scholars alike.77 And yet here too, a metaphor of the mirror persists, continuing to obscure as much as it reveals. Renowned historian of the Depression Barry Eichengreen, for example, has written about a “hall of mirrors” in which distorted reflections of the 1930s keep the truth of financial history from view.78 But how exactly is anyone to tell a distorted reflection from an accurate one, a correct image of history from a false one?
History itself provides no such means. Past events, structures, or processes become histories only through narrative operations, and there is always more than one way of narrativizing the past. This means not only that historical discourse can provide different accounts of the same episodes, but also that the lessons of the past must change with the histories from which they are drawn. An apparently signal event like the Great Depression thus acquires this status through the very institutions of historiography, which position the Depression within the story of capitalism in such a way that it seems able to reveal the hidden patterns of history. Moreover, the signal event produces the very patterns it purports to reveal, which are none other than the figures inscribed into its various narrativizations. Rather than a hall of mirrors, then, the Great Depression functions as a different kind of object—one that enables the historical present to emerge through recollected histories of finance. If we still want to think of this in terms of imaging and reflection, a better template can be found in the object known to art historians as the black mirror.
During the age of the picturesque in the late eighteenth century, landscape painters across Europe used small tinted convex mirrors to reduce and unify the objects under their gaze. On their walks, they would stop, turn their back on the scene that interested them, and look instead into their mirror, adjusting their position until they were confronted with an image they deemed beautiful enough to paint (beauty, of course, being synonymous with truth in the romantic imagination).79 In a similar fashion, few financial journalists have seemed willing to wander far without a history of the Great Depression at the ready, as if only these would enable them to bring the whole of the present into view and locate the subprime event within history. The metaphor of the black mirror in this way speaks to a desire for order in history of the kind that landscape painters looked for in nature. Just as these painters believed that a black mirror could reveal to them the unity of the natural world, journalists want to believe that the Great Depression can somehow reveal the recurring patterns that organize financial history.
Of course, at different times, journalists invoke and deploy different Great Depressions. Different mirrors, as it were, render financial history in different ways. Again, the appeal of the landscape provides an interesting perspective, specifically through what are known as Claude glasses. Rather than a single mirror, these were a portable set of convex tinted lenses that tourists often carried with them on walks through the countryside. Upon encountering a compelling scene, walkers would experiment by looking at it through any one of their different colored lenses, allowing them to “modify the weather and the luminosity of a day or a season in the space of a few seconds.”80 With Claude glasses, one’s physical position and lens interact to reveal the “truth” of nature, but this truth is filtered through the color of one’s chosen lens. Claude glasses were in this way less tied to the romantic ideal of beauty’s truth and more attuned to a bourgeois sensibility in which the organizing truths of nature could be modified or perfected to suit one’s tastes. This is an illuminating way of grasping the variety of patterns that journalists have seemed able to find in financial history. As before, the Great Depression is believed to be an event uniquely capable of revealing history’s patterns, but the fact that the Depression arrives to us through so many figures of recurrence means that in any one present, visions of history are easy to produce yet difficult to unify. The 1930s were repeatedly invoked in ways that purported to reveal the historicity of the subprime crisis, but these figurations of the 1930s interacted with the present to produce different images of its historicity—different lenses, different vistas.
In this sense, there is no simple unveiling of financial history to be had, but neither is there a simple concealment or occlusion. By acting as a historical black mirror, the idea of the Great Depression has simultaneously performed both these functions. Competing portrayals of the 1930s served to bring specific histories into view, but in so doing, they also worked to obscure other possible figurations, which would have revealed different truths about the present. In theoretical terms, this process implies a feedback loop between the events we narrate as crises and the inventory of crisis narratives associated with financial history. In the context of contemporary mass media, a financial event can be transformed into a moment of apparent crisis by bringing past events and imagined histories back into the orbit of the present. And yet during such a moment, it is these self-same events and histories that we draw on in order to put history back together again. As Valéry put it, “History feeds upon history.”
This strange loop is fundamentally different to the kinds of oppressive tautology theorized by the French New Left. For Debord, the real of history somehow feeds on bad or corrupted historical imagery, leaving itself bloated, sick, and unable to go on. For Baudrillard, history enters into a carnival of metaphysical cannibalism, eating so much of itself that auto-referentiality is all that remains. But within the logic of the historical black mirror, it is the historicity of the present that feeds on figurations of the past, and it does this precisely in order to recognize itself. Moreover, it seeks this recognition so that it may remain within history and will rewrite the very logic of history’s process if this is the price it must pay. It is not simply the self-image of the historical present, then, that is entangled with its own regime of representation, but also the actual historicity of said present, which is indistinguishable from its appearance as a figuration. By acting as a privileged mediator between the historical present and visions of historical recurrence, the idea of the Great Depression has revealed the fundamentally constitutive relation of historical imagination to historical process. Hence, in place of Debord’s “false consciousness of time,” we should speak instead of the necessary fictions of historical process, and within Baudrillard’s destruction of history by virtualization, we should identify the preconditions for a new mode of its very production.81
The results of this process, however, are decidedly indeterminate. Over the course of the subprime episode, this was forcefully illustrated not only in the way the Great Depression gave rise to different visions of historical recurrence, but also in the impact of these visions on the discursive production of crisis. In the coverage of the financial press, we saw denial slip into a state of emergency as visions of cyclical recurrence gave way to fears of epochal recurrence; we saw the notion of historical reversal emerge and take shape alongside state initiatives that were expressly intended to prevent cyclical recurrence from sliding into epochal recurrence; and we saw visions of cyclical recurrence reemerge and support a return to business as usual. In all of these ways, the Great Depression would appear to have helped save financial capitalism from itself, securing the conditions for its ongoing reproduction both during and in the wake of its apparent crisis. On the flip side, the Great Depression also produced a significant point of divergence within the global financial press. Through the figure of historical reversal, British and North American publications came to adopt diametrically opposed positions on the necessity and desirability of emergency crisis response measures. For the former, these measures were precisely what prevented a return to the 1930s, whereas for the latter, they were the only remaining threat of any such return. Insofar as this disagreement concerns both the historicity of the crisis and the future of the capitalist state, it constitutes an important new fissure within financial capitalism: no longer is there agreement on what kind of crisis it experienced, and no longer is there agreement on the proper role of the state within financialized accumulation. This kind of discord remains an enduring feature of the postcrisis landscape, suggesting that while visions of the 1930s may have helped weather a financial storm in 2008, they also worked to rob finance capital of a coherent self-image. The outcome of this new precarity is still uncertain, but one thing is clear: it will depend on whether the commentariat of global finance can once again establish a shared vision of world history.
1. Paul Valéry, Reflections on the World Today, trans. Francis Scarfe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1951), 13.
2. The International Monetary Fund, for example, made numerous and explicit comparisons to the 1930s in its World Economic Outlook, April 2009: Crisis and Recovery (Washington, DC: IMF, 2009). I analyze such policy discourses at length in Chapter 4.
3. Asset-backed securities (ABSs), mortgage-backed securities (MBSs), and credit default obligations (CDOs) are just some of the structured products implicated in the subprime crisis.
4. Research in this vein has focused on issues such as the relation between monetary policy and asset-price bubbles, the effectiveness of monetary and fiscal stimulus, and possible exit strategies from crisis response measures. For example, see Steven Gjerstad and Vernon Smith, “Monetary Policy, Credit Extension, and Housing Bubbles: 2008 and 1929,” Critical Review 21, no. 2–3 (2009): 269–300; Miguel Almunia, Agustín Bénétrix, Barry Eichengreen, Kevin O’Rourke, and Gisela Rua, “From Great Depression to Great Credit Crisis: Similarities, Differences and Lessons,” Economic Policy 25, no. 62 (2010): 219–65; and Kris James Mitchener and Joseph Mason, “Blood and Treasure: Exiting the Great Depression and Lessons for Today,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 26, no. 3 (2010): 510–39.
5. See Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (London: William Heinemann, 2009); Paul Krugman, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York: Norton, 2009); and Robert Skidelsky, Keynes: The Return of the Master (London: Allen Lane, 2009).
6. Lionel Barber, “How Gamblers Broke the Banks,” Financial Times, December 15, 2009.
7. Valéry, Reflections on the World Today, 13.
9. See Arnaud Maillet, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art (New York: Zone Books, 2004), esp. 85–101. Maillet has many interesting things to say about the object’s relation to religious superstitions, but it is the mirror’s role in landscape painting that I am alluding to here.
10. See the Preface in Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1970).
11. On the market-making power of the printing press and the novel, see Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989). In relation to finance in particular, see Joyce Goggin, “Learning Finance through Fiction: Cecilia and the Perils of Credit,” Finance and Society 1, no. 1 (2015): 61–74. Goggin argues that both the form and content of early realist novels were integral to the creation of a culture at ease with financial market speculation. For a broader and more detailed version of this argument, see Mary Poovey’s Genres of the Credit Economy: Mediating Value in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
12. Philip Cerny, “The Dynamics of Financial Globalization: Technology, Market Structure and Policy Response,” Policy Sciences 27, no. 4 (1994): 319–42; Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
13. Key political economy texts on these practices include Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1978); John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Industrial State (London: Pelican, 1968); and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).
14. “Model T Advertising,” Henry Ford Organization, accessed November 24, 2015, https://www.thehenryford.org/exhibits/showroom/1908/ads.html; Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio—Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War (London: Fourth Estate, 2013), 71–8.
15. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 97–99.
16. See György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971).
17. John Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Critical Inquiry 36, no. 2 (2010): 353–62.
18. This particular use of the mediation concept can be traced back to Hegel via Lukács. See Andrew Arato, “Esthetic Theory and Cultural Criticism,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (London: Continuum, 1982), 199–219.
19. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 24; Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 99.
20. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 114; Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trans. Malcolm Imrie (London: Verso, 1998), 12.
21. According to Baudrillard, capitalism moves through three distinct orders of appearance (or simulacra) associated with the logics of counterfeit, production, and simulation. For more detail on these and their intersection with reigning laws of value, see Baudrillard, Simulations, 81–152. In relation to the third simulacrum, he declares: “We come out of history in order to enter into simulation.” In “L’an 2000 ne passera pas,” Traverses 33, no. 4 (1985): 8–16, quoted in Kuan-Hsing Chen, “The Masses and the Media: Baudrillard’s Implosive Postmodernism,” Theory, Culture and Society 4, no. 1 (1987): 72.
22. Gordon Clark, Nigel Thrift, and Adam Tickell, “Performing Finance: The Industry, the Media and Its Image,” Review of International Political Economy 11, no. 2 (2004): 289.
23. On mimetic rationality and reflexivity in networked financial markets, see Mark Taylor, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World without Redemption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 285–87; Shaun French, Andrew Leyshon, and Nigel Thrift, “A Very Geographical Crisis: The Making and Breaking of the 2007–2008 Financial Crisis,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 2, no. 2 (2009): 287–302; and Jodi Dean, Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Desire (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 4–14.
24. Duncan Wigan, “Financialisation and Derivatives: Constructing an Artifice of Indifference,” Competition and Change 13, no. 2 (2009): 158. Since at least the 1960s, this market-completion fantasy has been the animating force behind orthodox finance theory.
25. On this, see Donald MacKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); and Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital, trans. Joachim Redner and Robert Savage (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 58–82.
26. Gillian Tett, “Wall Street’s Crash Course,” Financial Times, August 26, 2007.
27. This is not to say that television coverage was an inconsequential form of mediation during the subprime crisis. The point is rather that the rolling news format—with its ceaseless announcements of an event’s arrival—is part and parcel of spectacular or simulated time. For an analysis of how television coverage, alongside online and print journalism, helped produce a sense of world historical crisis in 2008, see James Brassett and Chris Clarke, “Performing the Sub-Prime Crisis: Trauma and the Financial Event,” International Political Sociology 6, no. 1 (2012): 4–20.
28. Although different from one another in many ways, each of these publications is based in a major international financial center and has syndication networks that target other hubs of high finance. The Economist and the Financial Times are based in London, publishing additional print editions for North America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific; Forbes and the Wall Street Journal are based in New York, publishing additional print editions for Europe and Asia.
In a corpus of 1,085 texts drawn from these four titles, the events of the 1930s are referred to in 235 separate articles. This corpus was constructed out of comment or opinion pieces that met three criteria: (1) they addressed ongoing financial turmoil, (2) they appeared in the native print edition of each publication, and (3) they were published between January 2007 and December 2009. Key search phrases used were “credit squeeze,” “credit crunch,” “financial crisis,” and “global financial crisis”—a series intended to capture relevant articles at various different stages of the subprime episode. WSJ articles were retrieved from the Proquest database. For each of the other publications, articles were retrieved through the archive and search services on their respective websites.
The aggregate count and list of relevant article subcategories for each publication are as follows: Economist (273)—“Leaders,” “Special Reports,” and “Briefings,”; Financial Times (385)—“Editorial Comment” and “Columns”; Forbes (194)—“Fact and Comment,” “Current Events,” and “Columns”; and Wall Street Journal (234)—“Editorial” and “Commentary.” References to the Great Depression are more numerous and frequent following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, reaching their peak in the fourth quarter of that year. This obtains across each of the four publications. The Economist invokes it on a total of eighty separate occasions, the Financial Times on forty-seven, Forbes on sixty-two, and the Wall Street Journal on forty-six.
29. Economist, “The Alchemists of Finance,” May 17, 2007.
30. Tett, “Wall Street’s Crash Course.”
31. The Economist pursues this line further in early 2009. By comparing the statements of Depression-era economist and failed investor Irving Fisher to those of former Citigroup head Chuck Prince, it suggests that each gave voice to a procyclical bias inherent to the psychology of financial markets. “How to Play Chicken and Lose,” January 22, 2009.
32. See Economist, “The Great American Slowdown,” April 10, 2008; “Paradise Lost,” May 15, 2008; “Britain’s Sinking Economy,” July 3, 2008.
33. Economist, “Unhappy America,” July 24, 2008.
34. Cited in Martin Wolf, “A Turning Point in Managing the World’s Economy,” Financial Times, April 22, 2008.
35. Ken Fisher, “Dear Abby,” Forbes Magazine, April 21, 2008.
36. David Roche, “Recession Is Inevitable,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2008.
37. David Malpass, “Credit Crisis Hits Home,” Forbes Magazine, April 21, 2008.
38. John Berlau, “Maybe the Banks Are Just Counting Wrong,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2008.
39. Gary Becker, “We’re Not Headed for a Depression,” Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2008.
40. A. Gary Shilling, “Worse Is Yet to Come,” Forbes Magazine, September 29, 2008; “Heard on the Street: Financial Analysis and Commentary,” Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2008.
41. Martin Wolf, “It’s Time for Comprehensive Rescues of Financial Systems,” Financial Times, October 7, 2008; Economist, “Into the Storm,” October 23, 2008.
42. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini, “Expect the World Economy to Suffer through 2009,” Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2009.
43. See David Malpass, “Recession, Taxes and Moral Hazard,” Forbes Magazine, April 16, 2007, and Steven Forbes, “Do Bad Economic Ideas Ever Die?” Forbes Magazine, July 2, 2007.
44. Steven Forbes, “How Capitalism Will Save Us,” Forbes Magazine, November 10, 2008; George Bush, “The Surest Path Back to Prosperity,” Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2008.
45. Economist, “Capitalism at Bay,” October 16, 2008.
46. Martin Wolf, “Global Imbalances Threaten the Survival of Liberal Trade,” Financial Times, December 2, 2008.
47. Economist, “Farewell, Free Trade,” December 18, 2008. See also “Government and Business in America: Piling On,” May 28, 2009.
48. Economist, “The Nuts and Bolts Come Apart,” March 26, 2009; Steven Forbes, “Uh-oh,” Forbes Magazine, March 2, 2009.
49. Steven Forbes, “The World Bank Should Resign,” Forbes Magazine, June 18, 2007.
50. Forbes, “How Capitalism Will Save Us”; Martin Wolf, “Congress Decides It’s Worth Risking Depression,” Financial Times, September 30, 2008.
51. Aaron Friedberg and Gabriel Schoenfeld, “The Dangers of a Diminished America,” Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2008.
52. Financial Times, “Editorial: A Survival Plan for Global Capitalism,” March 8, 2009.
53. Amity Shlaes, “Ugly View from Below,” Forbes Magazine, March 30, 2009.
54. Economist, “World Trade: Unpredictable Tides,” July 23, 2009; Martin Wolf, “How the Noughties Were a Hinge of History,” Financial Times, December 23, 2009.
55. Economist, “The Great Stabilisation,” December 17, 2009.
56. Economist, “World Trade.”
57. Steven Forbes, “The Real Peace Prize Winner,” Forbes Magazine, November 16, 2009.
58. Steven Forbes, “True Catastrophes,” Forbes Magazine, August 24, 2009.
59. Wolf, “How the Noughties Were a Hinge of History.”
60. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example, ask whether markets might have reached a trough as they did in 1932. See Martin Wolf, “Why Fairly Valued Stock Markets Are an Opportunity,” Financial Times, November 25, 2008; and James Stewart, “Retiree Hell Isn’t as Bad as You Might Think It Is,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2009. Meanwhile, both the Economist and Forbes recommend buying stocks even with default rates at Depression-era levels. See Economist, “When the Golden Eggs Run Out,” December 4, 2008, and David Dreman, “It’s Time to Buy,” Forbes Magazine, December 8, 2008).
61. Ken Fisher, “The Bear Market Is Over,” Forbes Magazine, August 24, 2009.
62. James Stewart, “The Year of Investing Cautiously,” Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2009.
63. Steven Forbes, “Hank, Meet Herb,” Forbes Magazine, January 7, 2008.
64. Steven Forbes, “Herbert Hoover Obama,” Forbes Magazine, June 30, 2008.
65. Paul Johnson, “Let Economies Cure Themselves,” Forbes Magazine, September 1, 2008.
66. James Grant, “The Confidence Game,” Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2008.
67. Economist, “America’s Bail-Out Plan: The Doctor’s Bill,” September 25, 2008.
68. Financial Times, “Editorial: The Bail-Out Failure and Blame Game,” September 30, 2008.
69. Economist, “When Fortune Frowned,” October 9, 2008. See also Financial Times, “Editorial: Nationalise to Save the Free Market,” October 13, 2008.
70. Financial Times, “Nationalise to Save the Free Market.”
71. David Malpass, “Curbing Washington’s Growing Power,” Forbes Magazine, November 10, 2008.
72. Robert Barro, “What Are the Odds of a Depression?” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2009.
73. Daniel Henninger, “Is This the End of Capitalism?” Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2009.
74. Amity Shlaes, “The New PC,” Forbes Magazine, September 3, 2009.
75. Compare Economist, “Government and Business in America” with Wolf, “How the Noughties Were a Hinge of History.”
76. Economist, “Capitalism at Bay.”
77. For example see Harold James, The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Michael Bordo and Harold James, “The Great Depression Analogy,” Financial History Review 17, no. 2 (2010): 127–40; James Livingston, “Their Great Depression and Ours,” in The Great Credit Crash, ed. Martijn Konings (London: Verso, 2010), 31–46; and Peter Temin, “The Great Recession and the Great Depression,” Daedalus 139, no. 4 (2010): 115–24.
78. Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses—and Misuses—of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
79. Maillet, The Claude Glass, 85–101.
80. Ibid., 142.
81. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 114.