To mark the recent publication of the ‘Pragmatics of Money’ special issue, edited by Melinda Cooper & Martijn Konings, the journal invited the contributors to introduce themselves and the various projects they are working on. Some also took the opportunity to reflect on their contributions to the special issue. We include their responses below.
Leigh Claire La Berge
In my article for the special issue, I’m fairly critical of how the trope of “performativity” has come to structure contemporary discussions about finance. As I detail, I find performativity rather constricted in its ability to critique crucial components of finance such as its temporality and the manner in which it represents value. Thus I turn to contemporary art and to the performance of finance that I locate in the practice of various contemporary musicians and artists.
My interest in performance, finance and the economy is two-fold. On the one hand, as an academic, I myself am right now working on a book entitled Wages Against Artwork: The Social Practice of Decommodification, sections of which have been published in South Atlantic Quarterly and Postmodern Culture. Concerned with the economic trend of uncompensated work and the aesthetic trend of artwork that seeks to ameliorate social inequality, Wages Against Artwork asks what kind of claims the aesthetic can make in an expiring welfare state. You can read an excerpt from the project, here.
Yet on the other hand, I was once a performer of finance myself. Before I went into graduate training in NYU’s American Studies program I worked in the early 2000s with the soon-to-be-exposed-as-fraudulent auditing company, Arthur Andersen. Traveling around the world as an “auditor” I did relatively little work, nor did my colleagues. We would arrive in some far-flung destination and insure that an audit was taking place. Then, by our very presence, an audit would have taken place. When I look back at this time now—traveling to six continents, auditing small and large companies while having almost no experience and producing very little information about said companies—I have a different understanding of how issues of performance, perhaps even performativity, come to structure corporate life. What part of corporate value production isn’t, in some way, a performance? As a scholar, I find post-structuralist readings of the economy, less than satisfying. However, when I think back to my days performing audits, and getting well paid and commended for doing so, I wonder: what could be more post-structural?
I’ve recently spoken about the link between my research on finance and my background in the performance of auditing with the History of Capitalism podcast, and you can find that interview here. Both experiences were important in the writing of my book, Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s, as well as they continue to influence my thinking about issues of financial abstraction, materiality, and the economic discourses that circulate around us daily.
Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty
In our recent work, we are interested in exploring how Marxian value theory has to transform to both describe and open political spaces in a world of financialized life, commodified risk and liquid capital. Some of our recent work had directly addressed value theory, but we hold the basic view that this task first requires closer understanding of the practical processes of finance.
So, we have recently been focussed on empirical studies to try to get a closer familiarity with the calculative logic of finance, and how it is changing daily life and also some of our core analytical categories. In regards to daily life, we have just finished a book-length manuscript addressing how risk is systematically being transferred to, and absorbed by, households in Australia, and on how to think about class strategies to push back against that transfer. We have made the study of Australia simply because it is a place with which we are most familiar, though we believe the analysis is far more general in its application, and a means to understand wider financialized class processes.
In regard to the calculative practices of capital, we have undertaken detailed studies of the techniques of shadow banking (Review of International Political Economy), LIBOR (British Journal of Sociology) intangible assets (Review of International Political Economy) and quantitative easing in the US and Europe (Journal of Cultural Economy). Here, we believe we are getting some handle on how some of the standard categories of capital and value theory need to be re-thought.
We are now commencing a book-length manuscript on Marxian value, focussing on how ‘labour’ is anchoring value in new, financialized ways, especially via an emerging anchoring role of securitized household payments.
Douglas R. Holmes
I am currently working on two book projects.
Fascism 2: Preliminary Reflections
One of the dangers posed by fascism is to imagine oneself immune to its seductions. For twenty years I have tried to talk and write with circumspection about the issues surrounding the rise of what we term—far too simplistically—the “extreme right” or “nationalist right” in Europe while refraining from being alarmist, and I have largely avoided using the “f-word”: fascism. Events over the last twenty-four months have led me to reconsider my position. I now think the extremism emerging around us should be understood as fascism of and in our time, a fascism that has distinctive contemporary features that are not fully nor necessarily congruent with its historical manifestations. If that is the case then we are, nonetheless, confronted with one overriding question: How and why have the most discredited ideas and sensibilities of the modern era—ideas that yielded the indelible horrors of the twentieth century—become persuasive, compelling even, in the new century? This book seeks to account for fascism’s contemporary seductions.
The text also address how anthropological modes of thought are implicated in the story. Thus my inquiry is not solely about the anthropology of fascism, but an inquiry into the “anthropology” that operates within fascism. By that I mean I am interested in how an illiberal political philosophy predicated on the partisan discrimination of cultural affinity and difference can inspire this state of affairs. When we, that is anthropologists, confront contemporary fascism we discover that it is our concepts, our disciplinary conceits, and even our methods that are repurposed in its vertiginous operation. It is now our urgent task to engage fascism as it unfolds on a human scale, in a language that is eerily familiar, in the crosscurrents of daily life, and in the jarring interplay of what Michael Herzfeld refers to as “cultural intimacy.”
A Tractable Future: Central Banks and Their Publics
I was at a dinner in New York City in spring of 2014 and seated next to a former central banker. It was not an occasion on which a hardcore discussion about monetary theory or the current state of the financial crisis was appropriate. Rather, as I recall, we talked briefly that evening about our children and their education. But towards the end of the dinner he asked what an anthropologist was doing in a central bank. I gave him a little background and then I said that I was particularly interested in “how central bankers seek to endow the future with discernable features that we—the public—can reflect and act upon animating or curtailing our propensities to produce, consume, borrow, and lend.” He paused for a moment and responded, “that’s exactly what I do, but I wouldn’t put it in those terms.” Much of the book is about why this deceptively simple interchange is important and what lies behind it. In particular I have argued that central bankers, rather than predicting the future, seek to create elements of a tractable future. They do this with words. They use language to sustain not merely the ideas that animate our economic future, but also the structures of feeling, the sentiments and expectations that make them real, as justifications for action and inaction.
In the text I further link what are essentially ethnographic insights to a classic question in monetary economics: What is the nature and operation of “the discretionary monetary policy regime” that commences in wake of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s? I have tried to address this question in a manner that is emphatically anthropological, while broadly consistent with the scholarship on monetary economics and monetary history (Desan 2014; Eichengreen 2008, 2015). My answer goes like this: Central bankers have for three or four decades been engaged in a deep, albeit implicit, anthropological exploration, a search for new means by which monetary affairs could be anchored conceptually, not to gold or to regimes of fixed exchange rates, but by way of an evolving relationship with the public, a relationship in which our predicaments could serve as the fulcrum of policy (Bernanke et al 1999; Holmes 2014a, 2015). And this unlikely relationship, I argue, begets an experimental monetary regime based on a series of translational, interpretative, and performative practices that animate the work of central bankers.
Article: The Spirit of Austerity
I am currently working on a book tentatively titled State of Speculation. It criticizes the widespread tendency to evaluate the contemporary financial system against a normative image of non-speculative finance and to conceptualize the role of the state in terms of the responsibility to constrain speculation. Such approaches tend to assume the state’s ability to disentangle itself from the dynamics of risk, its ability to occupy a neutral, external point of view. In practice, regulation is often deeply implicated in the speculative logics of economic life. The project makes this concrete through an analysis of the history of central banking, emphasizing that the emergence of modern financial governance has involved an intertwining of public policy with banking principles. Central banks are fundamentally bankers’ banks, and their key operational modality is to provide support to institutions whose collapse would have a system-wide impact. I examine how this function got institutionalized in specific ways in the mid-twentieth century, and I advance new readings both of the problems that emerged during the 1970s and of the way neoliberalism responded to these by offering new ways to engage risk. The book highlights the ways in which the logic of speculative investment has been brought into the heart of economic governance to make sense of the politics of bailout and austerity. Conceptually, the book draws on various strands of contemporary social theory (in particular Luhmann and Foucault’s late work) to reframe the question of economic order; and it translates the insights thus gained into the terms of political economy by offering reinterpretations of the contributions of Minsky and Hayek.
I am currently working on book project that is tentatively titled The Moral Economy of Global Debt. Temporality, Collateral and Collectivity. In this book I try to develop the term moral economy as the conflictual politics of obligation that enforces, secures or guarantees the financial nexus. The question of collateral stands at the heart of the politics of obligation: it centers attention on the material, legal, and imaginary guarantees that are used to launch economic futures and that are called in when they unravel. I argue that the implicit and explicit notions of collectivity determine the moral economy of debt and I develop this argument through case studies of the European crisis, ranging from the real estate “ruins” in Ireland and Spain to the governing of sovereign debt in Europe.
Melinda Cooper (issue coeditor)
In the last few years, I have been working on journal articles looking at specific problems relating to financialization and a larger canvas book project.
My recent journal articles attempt to understand the subprime crisis and its aftermath in the context of ongoing changes to welfare and employment in the US. In The Strategy of Default – Liquid Foundations in the House of Finance (2013), I am particularly interested in the sexual and racial profile of subprime borrowers and the fact that they represent the new welfare/workfare class i.e. disproportionately African-American, Latino/a and female. The work of Herman Schwartz as well as Gary Dymski and his colleagues has been invaluable here. This article is available for download here.
Although I am very attentive to the technics of securitized debt and credit derivatives, I think social theorists as a whole have been unable to understand the dynamics of crisis because they miss the point that the riskiest debt and hence the debt that precipitated the crisis was extracted from the wage (and sometimes welfare!) flows of the most precarious, uninsured citizens. It seems to me that there is a very direct way in which labour, welfare and “high finance” are imbricated in the structures of securitized credit. There is no need to invoke the labor theory of value to theorise what Carey Hardin (drawing on Deleuze and Guattari) refers to as the dynamic of “capture” at work here. Structured finance creates a relationship between income flows that are incommensurable – on the one hand, you have the income flows from labour and welfare that are not self-appreciating and the income flows from assets that, under conditions of asset inflation created by the Federal Reserve, constantly appreciate in value. The beauty of credit expansion, from a political point of view, is that it enables everyone, even the most asset impoverished to feel that they are taking part in the rush of asset appreciation.
This article also looks closely at the morality of debt that was invoked in the wake of the subprime crisis and the spectre of strategic default that emerged when a greater than usual number of consumers chose to walk away from their underwater homes. The discussion highlights the hidden contradiction of democratized finance that exhorts everyone to act like capitalists and yet in the last instance, cannot sustain itself unless everyday borrowers experience a sense of guilt that is not required of professional investors. The second article, Shadow Money and the Shadow Workforce, published in South Atlantic Quarterly in 2015, explores similar issues but in the longue durée. Again I attempt to challenge the idea that finance can be thought independently of labour and welfare. Thus, the decline in socially insured labour in the United States has enabled and indeed necessitated the expansion of uninsured money and debt creation outside the traditional structures of the New Deal banking system. The growing inequality precipitated by changes in employment is resolved by continually expanding high-risk credit, and yet this very dynamic puts the financial system as a whole at risk.
Some of this work is incorporated into my new book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, which is forthcoming from Zone books. The book revisits the political history of the 1970s in an attempt to understand why stagflation was understood so overwhelmingly as a crisis of the family and how the neoliberal/new conservative consensus that followed can be understood as an attempt to remake the family. Beyond housing finance, the book also includes chapters looking at the relationship between asset inflation and the return of inherited wealth, the sexual and racial politics of fiscal conservatism, and the specific familial logics of student debt.
Acknowledgements: Image by Metropolico.org. Used under a Creative Commons License.