Our Everyday Lives Have Been Financialized — And It’s Destructive

The rampant capitalism that has brought the market into every corner of society needs to be reined in.

The mature economies of the modern world, particularly the United States and Britain, are often described as “financialized.” The term reflects the ascendancy of the financial sector. Even more important, it conveys the penetration of the financial system into every nook and cranny of society, including housing, education, health and other areas of life that were previously relatively immune.

Evidence that financialization represents a deep transformation of mature economies is offered by the global crisis of 2007-09. The crisis originated in the elephantine U.S. financial system, and was associated with speculation in housing. For a brief period it led to serious questioning of mainstream economic theory and policy: how to confront the turmoil, and what to do about the diseased financial system; are new economic theories needed? However, after six years it is clear that very little has changed. Financialization is here to stay.

Consider, for instance, the policies to confront the crisis. First, public funds were injected into banks to boost capital. Second, public liquidity was made available to banks to sustain their operations. Third, public interest rates were driven to zero to enable banks to make secure profits by lending to their own customers at higher rates.

This extraordinary public largesse towards private banks was matched by austerity and wage reductions for workers and households. As for restructuring finance, nothing fundamental has taken place. The behemoths that continue to dominate the global financial system operate in the knowledge that they enjoy an unspoken public guarantee. The unpalatable reality is that financialization will persist, despite its costs for society.

Financialization represents a historic and deep-seated transformation of mature capitalism. Big businesses have become “financialized” as they have ample profits to finance investment, rely less on banks for loans and play financial games with available funds. Big banks, in turn, have become more distant from big businesses, turning to profits from trading in open financial markets and from lending to households. Households have become “financialized” too, as public provision in housing, education, health, pensions and other vital areas has been partly replaced by private provision, access to which is mediated by the financial system. Not surprisingly, households have accumulated a tremendous volume of financial assets and liabilities over the past four decades.

The penetration of finance into the everyday life of households has not only created a range of dependencies on financial services, but also changed the outlook, mentality and even morality of daily life. Financial calculation evaluates everything in pennies and pounds, transforming the most basic goods – above all, housing – into “investments.” Its logic has affected even the young, who have traditionally been idealistic and scornful of pecuniary calculation. Fertile ground has been created for neoliberal ideology to preach the putative merits of the market.

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