The first panel’s topic within the symposium on the financial meltdown of 2008–2009 is the deliciously broad question: “Did capitalism fail?” I have taken it as an invitation to ponder not the merits and demerits of modern global financial systems, but instead to continue my assessment of how those of us who are not financial professionals might make sense of them, particularly when they are in catastrophic mode. My thesis is that the question itself reveals the extent to which the financial crisis has not been so much about whether an economic system succeeds or fails (as Judge Richard Posner has tried to assess in two apocalyptically titled books published since February 2009), but the meaning we (including Judge Posner) as human beings draw from natural and human-made catastrophes. When the world discombobulates our sense of order, our expectations of cause and effect, we seem either to (a) question our most fundamental assumptions about science, progress, and social order, or (b) look for someone to blame.
I will proceed as follows. First, I will parse the question “did capitalism fail?” to make it clear why I think it is ambivalent, syntactically, about the telos of the financial crisis. Grammatically, is the sentence transitive or intransitive? Second, I will tie the ambivalent syntax of the question to its equally ambivalent meaning—telic or atelic—in connection with the financial crisis itself. In the frame of the atelic metaphor, capitalism failed in the sense of getting sick or dying, and the real problem was the perception that the professionals did not know how to cure the patient. In the frame of the telic metaphor, a well-engineered modern society hums along smoothly, operated and regulated by well-trained professionals. In that case, either the machine or its operators failed our expectations. I conclude by suggesting that if we understand the source of the metaphoric frames themselves, we may not solve the financial crisis, but we may be able to calm the troubled waters of our fundamental assumptions and our concomitant desire to find human or divine villains to blame.