The allegorical import behind Don DeLillo's 2003 novel.
It happened in New York on an April day in the year 2000. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were still standing. The American economy had been growing non-stop for more than a hundred months; the Dow Jones Industrial Index had just climbed above 11,000 points to reach an all-time high, while electronic trade on the NASDAQ was rallying steadily. After a sleepless night, a twenty-eight-year-old billionaire fund manager decides to leave his apartment on Manhattan’s East Side to go to a hairdresser on the shabby West Side, his part of town as a child. He rides down in one of the private elevators and climbs into his white armor-plated stretch limousine and heads to Forty-seventh Street, passing one high-rise apartment building after another. As the night wears on, our protagonist gets caught up in a series of adventures and complications that may rightly be called an odyssey.
With this strange story, Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel takes us right into the arena of the modern financial market.
On the way, the fund manager meets his wife and one or other of his mistresses. There is a report that the IMF director has been murdered, and likewise a Russian oligarch, a media entrepreneur, who had been a friend of this young billionaire. Crawling through the traffic, the limousine crosses Park and Madison Avenues, drives through the old Jewish neighborhood and reaches the Broadway theater district, only to be trapped in the chaos of an anti-globalization protest. A bomb explodes at the entrance to an investment bank; as a young man sets himself on fire, our speculator looks on, unaware that he himself will soon fall victim to a pie attack. Suddenly, and for no particular reason, he kills his chief of security and reaches his childhood hairdresser’s near the docks. Then, equally inexplicably and abruptly, he leaves the hairdresser, gets involved with three hundred naked extras in a late-night film shoot, and coincidentally runs into his wife for the last time. An ex-colleague is waiting for him in a deserted ruin, and this man, he must finally understand, will be his murderer.
With this strange story, Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel takes us right into the arena of the modern financial market, touches on the question of whether that market lends itself to narrative treatment and offers a series of narrative and rhetorical figures to represent the riddle of the finance economy, its protagonists and their operations. In his 1977 novel, Players, DeLillo had already pursued the question of how business finance and stock market speculation can be presented in narrative form. The narrative device he has chosen in Cosmopolis—a New York speculator’s trip one day to the hairdresser’s—amounts to a synopsis of modes of perception and problems which must still be termed capitalist. The key to this achievement is DeLillo’s depiction of his main character. Around this figure he develops an allegory of modern finance capitalism, invoking both received historical ideas and contemporary economic theories. At the same time, the particular narrative method employed by the novel, with its hypertrophic amassing of events, raises fundamental questions about how different incidents are interconnected in the current global economy. An opportunity thus presents itself to question the inner workings of the capitalist economy, this system that appears to be our destiny.
Faced with the mysteries of the most modern form of finance capitalism, DeLillo responds in his novel by combining elements of the old and the new capitalist mentality. On the one hand, this allows him to portray the addiction to change and the continual revolutionizing of global and economic structures in the name of capitalist free enterprise as a process of “creative destruction,” to borrow Schumpeter’s famous phrase: “Destroy the past, make the future.” On the other hand, it enables him to show how these forces have freed themselves from the sphere of production. Thanks to the alliance of “technology and capital,” the culture of the market has become as insubstantial as it is all-encompassing. The movement of capital now knows no bounds. Freed from the material manifestations of wealth, it has installed itself in “a time beyond geography and touchable money.” It dictates its own dynamics and standards of mobility, abandoning all local, social and political constraints.
This literary compilation of canonical formulae, drawn from both older and more recent analyses of capitalism—from Marx and Engels, through Schumpeter, up to Baudrillard, Boltanski, Chiapello, or Rifkin—forms a tableau depicting the latest in a series of industrial revolutions. With the era of the steam engine and the regime of automation behind it, capitalism is now following a “digital imperative” and, in the process, seeking to regulate “every breath drawn by the billions of people who live on this planet.” This must be seen against the backdrop of the massive technological and economic upheaval brought about by the creation of electronic stock exchanges and the spread of computerized trading since the 1980s, all of which led to exponential growth in the mobility of capital transactions.
At the center of this euphoric alliance of information technology and finance capital, in DeLillo’s novel, stands a course of events that lacks clear direction and follows a totally improbable and irrational course— and, in the process, yields an interpretation of what it means to live under conditions created by today’s finance economy. This is revealed, on the one hand, by the way narrated events themselves unfold. For the path of DeLillo’s allegory of capitalism leads further than expected. It not only runs from the eighty-ninth story of a luxury apartment tower to street-level shabby backyards; it not only moves from east to west, so following the prevailing direction of the American dream; and it not only draws a line from life to death, the place where exchange is no longer possible and all transactions cease. Like another modern Ulysses who spent an entire day wandering through a metropolis, the route taken by DeLillo’s protagonist recalls the erratic itinerary of age-old voyages at sea. The allegory amounts in effect to a Homeric pastiche, recalling the fate of Odysseus in all its variants.
It is no accident that the whole course of events is encapsulated in a slogan lifted from the famous opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, a slogan modified by the demonstrators to make the capitalist spirit interchangeable with its former, “spectral” counterpart. Appearing on an electronic stock ticker displayed on the façade of an investment bank, it reads: “a specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism.”
This article was adapted from Joseph Vogl’s forthcoming book, The Specter of Capital.