I love the show Radiolab. For those that aren’t familiar, it’s a brilliant radio program from WNYC hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich on science done in a very creative and entertaining format.
Their recent episode exploring the concept of speed is fascinating. During the show, they have a segment on the speed of trades in the financial market that’s especially interesting to me. The segment starts off dismantling some of the preconceived ideas about what trading actually looks like, e.g., men in jackets and suits running around Wall Street with contracts or shouting out bits of jargon on the trading floor. That still happens, but that’s a tiny fraction of how trades are done nowadays. Instead, trading takes place electronically. Billions of dollars are made, lost, traded, and invested, in fractions of a fraction of a second.
While the show examines the remarkable scale of the trades and the microscopic span of time they take to be made, they leave out the real human side of the issue. Billions of dollars are traded across the globe in nanoseconds, yet potentially cause a lifetime of suffering for thousands of people. (In fact, the segment actually argues the opposite: the piece give a ton of time to the stock traders and the spiteful liberals from NPR’s Planet Money to apologize for Wall Street. They argue that we all actually benefit from a more technologically advanced stock exchange, since it drives prices for goods down–nevermind all the chaos dreamed up by a worldwide free market doped up on cyber speed.)
One thing that came to mind while listening to the segment was the way “equality” is distorted by capitalism. During the segment they keep talking about how trades are determined by fractions of a second: if one person in Chicago bids on something at the same time that a trader in New York does, the trader in New York will win the bid because their trade took a nanosecond less than the trade coming from Chicago since the data had to travel through less fiber optic cable (even though the data is moving at the speed of light!).
Because trades are determined by fractions of a nanosecond, it really matters how close traders and banks are in proximity to the stock exchange. The segment takes us to the NYSE’s server farm: a space the size of three football fields filled with servers. Any trading firm, bank, etc., is allowed to host their server there–so every firm has a server located an equal distance from the exchange. Furthermore, every server gets an exactly equal length of fiber optic cable.
This is what equality means to the capitalist: it’s crude, mechanical, and ultimately irrelevant (for the vast majority of society). It means equal opportunity for the capitalist to exploit and oppress. Painstaking effort and massive resources are devoted to ensuring that multi-billion dollar trading firms each get a shot at scorching the Earth, and exploiting people’s labor.
The segment closes out with the Planet Money schmuck talking about how the stock exchange is trying to figure out a way to set up a radio tower relay for trading firms since data will travel faster through air than through cable–something like one nanosecond faster. But surely such a massive infrastructural project would cost billions of dollars in materials, investment, labor, etc. And yet, we’re told that there is no money for public transit, education, housing, or healthcare.
But there are billions of dollars available for trading firms to fight over which firm gets to exploit which resource, which worker, etc. But does it make a difference to the homeless person which bank foreclosed on their home? Or to the indigenous person which oil company displaced them? Or to the unemployed worker which company laid them off? Of course not. Yet, billions upon billions are spent by these firms competing over who gets to exploit whom.
Equality in a capitalist society is predominantly understood from the perspective of the capitalist. Everyone is equal as long as everyone has an equal chance to invest their capital and freely earn profit. Of course, this is an absurd conception of equality. Not everybody has capital. And since you need capital to get capital, it’s very difficult for those who aren’t lucky or don’t inherit it to enter into the market.
Real equality, of course, would be equality in life, e.g., in housing, healthy food, leisure time, means to create culture, education, etc. But this is only possible in a society where we control the things we create with our work, and the technology we use to create them, and use them for the good of society, instead of for the private profit of a few wealthy and powerful individuals.