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Lessons learned and not learned from Bernie Madoff

...Tygstrup’s argument thus relies on setting Madoff’s normalcy off against a historically specific change in the overall level of financialization. It relies on a relatively common claim about a quantitative increase in the fictitiousness of capital at a particular moment in time. The idea is that Madoff might have been easier to clock, he would have stuck out more, if not for a quantitative growth in fictitious capital. Later, Tygstrup summarizes financial history by saying that after 1929, “certain limits were set for how much banks should be allowed to leverage.” After the run on the banks that triggered the Depression, in other words, the regulators put some limits on fictitious assets. Speculation was kept in check by reserve ratios, where those reserves served as a foundation or referent for financial activity. After the 1980s, according to Tygstrup, deregulation allowed the degree of leverage to rise, and it “skyrocketed.” He cites Martijn Konings’s Capital and Time for a description of “inflated positions” that “performatively built up supplementary market value.”

There’s no question that the fascination with Bernie Madoff, an ideal Jewish scapegoat and record-breaking Ponzi builder, emerged out of both a desire to punish the entire rentier class and a desire to excise a bad apple. His normal qualities made him a good stand-in for finance generally. And at the same time, if Madoff was an unusual criminal, then getting rid of him might allow finance to get back to the status quo. In this way, punishing Madoff served both a desire to see and not to see systemic problems. And Tygstrup is correct in pointing out that the financier who was called a monster exhibited a real lack of monstrosity. The scale of his crimes may have been monstrous, but he didn’t seem particularly devious and the money wasn’t spent on cocaine and hookers and yachts–just one mistress and a second home. The fear that Madoff provoked came from the subtlety of the distortion. If, generically, Madoff served as an allegory for the events of his era, perhaps affectively he entered the category of the uncanny. Madoff was so familiar that he was eerie, unheimlich.

So Madoff’s performance was uncannily successful at a historically specific moment, granted. But Konings’s point, in Capital and Time, is precisely not that 2008 indicated that capitalism had breached some kind of objective boundary...

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