Upcoming OAC online seminar: Finance, Value, and Inequality (April 15-22, 2016)

When you think about capitalism, globalization, or neoliberalism, does your thinking stop with conventional stereotypes of greedy corporations exploiting the weak or unwary? If someone asked you how private equity investors, venture capitalists, commodity traders, and hedge fund or family office managers differ in how they conceive of markets, their investing styles and personal habits—could you answer their question? Have you thought about financialization--the process of shifting financial transactions from material goods and processes to abstractions traded and managed as if they had value in their own right? Can you imagine anthropology and archeology having important things to say about this process and the way its different forms shape social inequality?

If any of these questions interest you, the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC) invites you to join a seminar on Finance, Value, and Inequality: Towards a comparative anthropology of wealth and poverty, a paper by Brandeis University anthropologist Daniel Souleles. The paper can be downloaded here:

http://openanthcoop.net/press/2016/03/28/finance-value-and-inequality/

The seminar is NOW CLOSED! Thanks everyone for taking part!!!

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Daniel, "limp-wrested" was perhaps a bit excessive. I have no desire whatsoever to see you and Keith engage in the sort of academic cat fight or Punch-and-Judy show seen so frequently on the internet. What disturbs me, however, is the loss of an opportunity to produce better, more comprehensive theory by combining, tweaking where necessary, what are it seems to me complementary insights. My thoughts about how this could be done, largely borrowed from you and Keith, are as follows.

1. Financialization is fundamentally the commodification of money. In other words, money becomes not just a store of value and means of exchange but a good in its own right.

2. Conceived as a commodity, money can, like other commodities, be packaged and consumed in many different forms. 

3. Where money differs from other commodities is, in today's world a remarkable level of abstraction that separates money from any particular material manifestation and allows it in a Marxian sense to be perfectly fetishized, achieving a state in which there is no use value except for exchange value. A commodity like corn may be sold fresh, frozen or canned for human consumption, turned into corn flakes, bagged for use as cattle feed, used as an ingredient in pet foot, or converted to corn syrup and used as a sweetener, contributing to obesity around the world. But all of these uses depend on chemical and other properties of the grain itself. In modern finance, money has left that all behind, to float free in a fully fetishized ideal realm of its own. 

4. The process described above begins early in human history and, as history and ethnography have demonstrated, has taken many forms. It is here that examples like the Inka become relevant.

5. A critical moment, I suggest, is state formation. Archeology demonstrates that state formation worldwide is consistently associated with two phenomena: war and large-scale public works. Both require large numbers of men, who as soldiers or corvee labor, must be supplied with food and equipment, which they themselves do not produce. The question is no longer simply what food or what tools or weapons must be obtained but how much of each. Counting becomes essential and thus abstraction begins. Exchanges like the kula in which named objects, each with its own distinctive history and personality are exchanged, give way to accumulation in terms of standardized lots. It is easy to envision this transition in terms suggested by descriptions of Melanesian "big men," who become big men by mobilizing labor to produce the pigs required for public displays of wealth.

Now, you know and I know as well, that what I have described above is only the roughest of rough sketches. Still, I would argue, it suggests a framework within which more recent developments in commodification and financialization could be analyzed as emerging components in an ongoing process about which anthropologists have interesting things to say, and your contributions and Keith's could both find important places in a larger narrative.

Peace.

I turn now to football versus the Olympics as competing metaphors for the financial services industry. First, why should we see them as competing. Why not embrace them both?

I recall what Deidre McCloskey writes in The Rhetoric of Economics. Speaking of economics but, I would argue, in a way that applies to the social sciences more generally, she observes that our discourse is a combination of facts and logic with story and metaphor and while we are pretty good at teaching and using facts and logic, we are not very good at distinguishing good stories and metaphors from bad ones. 

I think of George Soros' observation in The Open Society that every successful business starts with a good story, but successful investing requires knowing when  a good story turns bad. 

I also think, of course, of my experience working in advertising. I never once saw facts and logic displayed in carefully argued presentations sell anything. Facts and logic were respected but always played second fiddle to the story or image that made the client smile. Thinking about what makes a good story or metaphor became an essential part of my copywriter's tool kit. 

I once wrote an article on this subject that was published as a chapter "Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors" in John Sherry (1995) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. There I suggested three criteria for choosing the better metaphor:

  1. "Is the idea big enough?" Does it, in other words, comprehend everything we might want to say?
  2. "Is the idea campaignable?" Does it, in other words, provide a framework within which more than one story can be told?
  3. "Does it feel right?" Here I noted the difference between ideas that fit a strategy but remain somehow commonplace and dull and those which have everyone excited and looking for ways to develop and improve it.

When I apply these criteria to the choice of football or the Olympics as a metaphor for the financial services industry, to me there is no question about it. The Olympics are the better metaphor. Politics, national rivalries, international cooperation, ideals and corruption—plus, the vital detail to which Daniel's analysis points us, that finance is not one game but many. All involve money but did a bit deeper and generic differences dissolve into family resemblances. That is, as Daniel himself notes, an important observation, and not simply because it is intellectually satisfying. Policy makers and progressive movements must deal with the different interests and attitudes at stake. Football as a metaphor doesn't highlight these critical components in what Daniel has written.

I apologize for entering towards the end of so many interesting conversations swirling around Dan's paper. But I have a few thoughts to add during this lull in activity.

Huon, thank you for the detailed description of some of the newer work on Khipu. Much of the work you summarized is new to me. Your summary was provocative and, I think, productive for the discussion of Dan’s paper.

I can’t help but fixate on the fact that Dan's financiers view themselves as wealth creators, not extractors. Their moral judgement of their work strikes me as important. It is not a stretch to say their art (as Lee suggested) is creating wealth (claiming to, at least) through the medium of finance. As John points out, the abstractions of finance make money an abstract and expressive medium; one capable of transforming the humble corn kernel into nearly any commodity.

There is an aesthetic element at work in the financial modeling of financiers as certainly as there is an aesthetic element at work in the modeling of theoretical physicists. Some financial arrangements are more pleasing (and hence morally correct?), in a sense beyond the counting of dollars, than others. The artfulness of a deal (deal as experience?) is neither accidental nor ancillary to their work. And rarely does anyone point out the uncomfortable fact, as Nigel Thrift does (2005), that capitalism, as the kind of creative act practiced on Wall Street, is also fun.

To circle back to the Khipu, perhaps it would help to consider the work of remaking boundaries (between ethnic groups, etc..) as a creative exercise in the aesthetics of empire creation. Certainly some arrangements of ethnic groups are more pleasing than others. The boundary between ethnic groups, for the Inka, and the boundary between market and non-marketable goods, for financiers, are not (as Michael E Smith pointed out) empirically comparable, but they are conceptually comparable. A Khipu is a representation of certain relationships in the same way as a financial model represents certain relationships. That bytes and strings are not empirically equivalent is of little consequence in this sense.

As to the correct metaphor, I am partial to the World Cup. The World Cup has politics, national rivalry, and even more corruption than the Olympics. I don't think the distinction among what people on Wall Street do on a day to day basis is as strong as the distinction between Wall Street and Main Street. Everybody is in the market economy as everybody plays the beautiful game.

Hi Erin,

Great clarifying questions. Let me see if I can be of some help. In regard to the first dimension which John suggested--something along the lines of maintaining the status quo as in a family office to something disruptive like a venture capital firm (they would love to hear that you placed them there, by the way), your question about access and meritocracy is a good one. Simply put you have to be rich or a special entity to participate in the type of finance I describe. The SEC has rules as to what makes someone an accredited investor (here is a decent summary: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accredited_investor#United_States). My understanding is that these rules were put in place after the great depression to keep everyone and their barber from being swept up in speculative manias. That said, there are some new retail options to getting into private equity. Several of the larger firms have taken out initial public offerings and invest that money.

As to who is actually doing the investing in these firms, your note about the meritocracy points you in the right direction. People with the write educational, social or employment trajectory end up managing funds.

So I think this is what you were curious about, but am not sure. Let me know if I need to be reoriented.

Erin Taylor said:

Hi all,

Regarding John's question about dimensions. If I understand correctly, we have one dimension in which people's manipulation of the financial system ranges from reproducing the status quo (inequality) to contesting the distribution of wealth (redistribution). But I am unclear about who the main actors are in this. Does this just refer to a financial elite (old money and new brokers in a "meritocracy") or is it something that can be applied more broadly? Could we apply ideas from material culture about appropriation of financial products by ordinary people, or is this stretching it? 

This relates to John's second dimension, abstraction, which also appears to be a domain of elites. Abstraction facilitates scalability, which facilitates wealth creation. Finance no longer based on production. Reminds me of of Taussig's observations in "The Devil and Commodity Fetishism." But entrepreneurs coming from non-privileged backgrounds might have access to scalability too (esp. through the Internet), but this doesn't necessarily do much to impact inequality. However, I'm getting a sense that John was talking about much more than this. 

E



John McCreery said:

Daniel,

First, allow me to add my latecomer's thanks for your sharing this paper with us. Then, a few remarks and a question.

Remark 1: Those interested in the history of counting and its relationship to government and finance should take a look at China.This reference is to official propaganda but may nonetheless be useful as a place to begin: http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_madeinchina/2005-08/18/content_71...

Remark 2: Keith's comments on the naive anthropologist resonate strongly with my own current concerns. Serendipitously, I will be giving a paper at the IUAES meeting in Dubrovnik in which I point out that business anthropologists frequently deal with "natives" who are industry insiders. How does one learn the language required to get ethnographic interviews beyond superficial platitudes? Reading the industry trade press is a good place to begin.

Question: As I consider the relationship of different forms of financialization to social inequality, I find myself imagining a space of possibilities. One dimension ranges from conservative,maintaining existing inequalities, exemplified by family offices to innovative, creative destruction that transforms existing hierarchies, exemplified by venture capitalists. The other dimension is degree of abstraction from transactions involving material goods, ranging from barter at one extreme to securitized debt in regions of abstraction largely floating free from material goods, except, of course, at the margins where debt is transformed into payment for the sorts of goods that masters of the universe purchase to display their financial success. Does this approach make sense to anyone but me? And, if so, where would private equity investors, commodity brokers, and hedge fund managers fit on the map?

Hi John,

I think there is a lot to recommend in the sequence you laid out. I think your theorizing about the state and projects that come with it as going some distance to answering the question that Wengrove and Graeber (2015) laid out, wondering how exactly it was that certain inequalities became entrenched in human societies. The enduring nature of state formations and projects certainly would seem to give an appropriate backdrop to indefinitely proceeding processes of counting and abstraction that are necessary for financialization.

I think one of the reasons I haven't done much with states or the context they set up, is, that, from an ethnographic perspective at least, I have a lot of trouble seeing a coherent state or state project (another lurking bias is that many of my informants take it as a given). Insofar as the state is concerned with provisioning it's own projects, in the American context, it often seems to be working at cross purposes with itself. Though, perhaps beyond provisioning, it does set rules and parameters that enable finance to occur. Given that, how do you see institutions like civil courts, definitely state run, fitting with this scheme? I think there is an argument that contract law is a significant component of what lets private equity do what it does, and at this point I'm not quite clear how those types of state institution would fit into this schema. What do you make of this?


John McCreery said:

Daniel, "limp-wrested" was perhaps a bit excessive. I have no desire whatsoever to see you and Keith engage in the sort of academic cat fight or Punch-and-Judy show seen so frequently on the internet. What disturbs me, however, is the loss of an opportunity to produce better, more comprehensive theory by combining, tweaking where necessary, what are it seems to me complementary insights. My thoughts about how this could be done, largely borrowed from you and Keith, are as follows.

1. Financialization is fundamentally the commodification of money. In other words, money becomes not just a store of value and means of exchange but a good in its own right.

2. Conceived as a commodity, money can, like other commodities, be packaged and consumed in many different forms. 

3. Where money differs from other commodities is, in today's world a remarkable level of abstraction that separates money from any particular material manifestation and allows it in a Marxian sense to be perfectly fetishized, achieving a state in which there is no use value except for exchange value. A commodity like corn may be sold fresh, frozen or canned for human consumption, turned into corn flakes, bagged for use as cattle feed, used as an ingredient in pet foot, or converted to corn syrup and used as a sweetener, contributing to obesity around the world. But all of these uses depend on chemical and other properties of the grain itself. In modern finance, money has left that all behind, to float free in a fully fetishized ideal realm of its own. 

4. The process described above begins early in human history and, as history and ethnography have demonstrated, has taken many forms. It is here that examples like the Inka become relevant.

5. A critical moment, I suggest, is state formation. Archeology demonstrates that state formation worldwide is consistently associated with two phenomena: war and large-scale public works. Both require large numbers of men, who as soldiers or corvee labor, must be supplied with food and equipment, which they themselves do not produce. The question is no longer simply what food or what tools or weapons must be obtained but how much of each. Counting becomes essential and thus abstraction begins. Exchanges like the kula in which named objects, each with its own distinctive history and personality are exchanged, give way to accumulation in terms of standardized lots. It is easy to envision this transition in terms suggested by descriptions of Melanesian "big men," who become big men by mobilizing labor to produce the pigs required for public displays of wealth.

Now, you know and I know as well, that what I have described above is only the roughest of rough sketches. Still, I would argue, it suggests a framework within which more recent developments in commodification and financialization could be analyzed as emerging components in an ongoing process about which anthropologists have interesting things to say, and your contributions and Keith's could both find important places in a larger narrative.

Peace.

Hi John and Michael,

Fist, John, that was a very persuasive explanation of metaphor and metaphor appropriateness. Though, I must say, I do appreciate the irony that I ended up being persuaded of your metaphor by way of logical argument!

Michael, thanks for joining the seminar. Your observation about conceptual comparison puts clearly what I was trying to do in the paper. Moreover I think the sundry culture theories we have lying around the discipline are great for this type of comparison of schemes of categorization. And in turn, this is why I like writing about value, value circulation and value capture.

And taking the metaphor talk in sequence, I think your notes on the beautiful game is a good one. Though for it to work with finance, we have to take in the whole gestalt of FIFA, world cup stadiums, criminal indictments, and so on. With the Olympics we get a nice contained universe where everyone chases after different ideas of value, but ultimately that value need be translated into gold. If only the us dollar was still on the gold standard, then the metaphor would work even better. Oh well, it's probably for the best that it isn't. Lee, how does all this metaphor work strike you?

Michael Scroggins said:

I apologize for entering towards the end of so many interesting conversations swirling around Dan's paper. But I have a few thoughts to add during this lull in activity.

Huon, thank you for the detailed description of some of the newer work on Khipu. Much of the work you summarized is new to me. Your summary was provocative and, I think, productive for the discussion of Dan’s paper.

I can’t help but fixate on the fact that Dan's financiers view themselves as wealth creators, not extractors. Their moral judgement of their work strikes me as important. It is not a stretch to say their art (as Lee suggested) is creating wealth (claiming to, at least) through the medium of finance. As John points out, the abstractions of finance make money an abstract and expressive medium; one capable of transforming the humble corn kernel into nearly any commodity.

There is an aesthetic element at work in the financial modeling of financiers as certainly as there is an aesthetic element at work in the modeling of theoretical physicists. Some financial arrangements are more pleasing (and hence morally correct?), in a sense beyond the counting of dollars, than others. The artfulness of a deal (deal as experience?) is neither accidental nor ancillary to their work. And rarely does anyone point out the uncomfortable fact, as Nigel Thrift does (2005), that capitalism, as the kind of creative act practiced on Wall Street, is also fun.

To circle back to the Khipu, perhaps it would help to consider the work of remaking boundaries (between ethnic groups, etc..) as a creative exercise in the aesthetics of empire creation. Certainly some arrangements of ethnic groups are more pleasing than others. The boundary between ethnic groups, for the Inka, and the boundary between market and non-marketable goods, for financiers, are not (as Michael E Smith pointed out) empirically comparable, but they are conceptually comparable. A Khipu is a representation of certain relationships in the same way as a financial model represents certain relationships. That bytes and strings are not empirically equivalent is of little consequence in this sense.

As to the correct metaphor, I am partial to the World Cup. The World Cup has politics, national rivalry, and even more corruption than the Olympics. I don't think the distinction among what people on Wall Street do on a day to day basis is as strong as the distinction between Wall Street and Main Street. Everybody is in the market economy as everybody plays the beautiful game.

By no means did I intend to en-noble the Inkas viz. Financiers Daniel; I'm fully with you on pocketing the moral revolver here. Archaeological data does not lend itself well to words vs. deeds-tests, which is one of the main comparative challenges. But on that stroke I'd also warn against the excitement borne by the scent of 'the human condition' that these kinds of bold comparisons do emit: It easily leads one to jump to see a bit too much similarity.

How to do serious comparison of forms of social inequality in a total human scope? A trillion dollar question, to which all I have to offer are some erratic layman's allusions to the cases at hand. Beyond what comes, my most important message, is to make sure that the empirical matter at each end (archeological - ethnographic) gets as rigorously leveled as it gets.

To me, the comparative equivalent to the Khipus in your finance-field seems to be Spreadsheets, which within your theoretical framework level as specific technologies serving to account for aggregate value (re-)allocation processes. So far, so good. Where the leveling seems to run into trouble however (and this has been touched upon more or less incidentally by most discussants), is how to compare Value. Accepting Value as a higher order category, we'll have to specify properly its differential realizations. For the finance-case, your text firmly establishes money as Value's key symbol. Many wise words have already been offered as to how to further pry open money's very historically situated social nature. For the Inkas on the other hand, we've barely scratched Value's surface. A moneyless empire, to me the Khipus and various other records seem to say that the key symbol of Value was tributary labor.

Now, I suggested that Khipus and Spreadsheets level as techs that account for aggregate value (re-)allocation processes. So spreadsheets reallocate (among others?) money, Khipus (among others) tributary labor. But here again I think it's important to examine the particular processual differences. From superficial surfing, I get it that the Inkas divided conquered areas that could be cultivated into three, then had the output of 2/3 funneled up the ladder, whilst that of the remaining 1/3 was left on local hands. By the Khipus, the Inkas could mass-survey that all local subjects kept in with labor dictates on the 2/3-territories (how much time they spent on their local fields was apparently not recorded, yet of course, to the locals themselves essential). By these measures, the quantities that PE-folks extract as you state them seem rather modest. But then there's this thing that the generation of inequality can come about in other significant ways than surplus extraction (possibly we sometimes suffer from a Marxian blindness here).

So a quick return to Urton's Harmony-claim. Now, I'm sure that a time-machine would allow any ethnographer to quickly demonstrate quite some ideological wishy-washy-ness here. As sources have it, the insanely high calibration of the Inka labor tribute system generated an immensely oppressive workregime, which plausibly strained the patience with the rulers among many conquered groups. Nevertheless I think we can't get around the significance of Ayni, the Inka reciprocity-principle, by which the Inka government in return provided military security, religious monuments, roads, irrigation systems, arts, an abundance of raw materials and foodstuff from all regions, as well as regular lavish festivals and ceremonies, which included gifting of great quantities of food (all based, of course, on their systematic labor extraction.

As much finance-folks like to frame themselves as "wealth-creators", what does this elite have to level Ayni? Over here, there used to be the Welfare State, but recently, that one's been starting to look quite bleach...Disregarding the subtle internal cultural difference you so nicely spell out, from my knowledge a textbook procedure of business re-engineering since half a century, regardless of temporal horizon, is labor restructuring (i.e. flexibilization, outsourcing, down-sizing). This is because it it one of the quickest fixes to the surplus-side of corporate balance-sheets (remember that most powerful number?). From my brush-encounters with such folks, they seem to know well, even often publicly admit, that such measures include economic precarity to many down the line. Typically, they go on to justify it in the name of preserving future security/profits for those remaining on board. So in fact, I almost take it for granted that most finance-folks in leisurely situations would admit that their game is deeply one of winners and losers, where everyone ultimately has to fend for themselves (and those who lost deserved it); and I'd be surprised if your 'hanging out'-records don't at least partially document such attitudes...

Anyways, returning to inequality-comparison, in both cases, we see the the rise of historically specific hierarchic formations that shade some dramatic, yet quite different social inequality-forms. In the Inka case we seem to have a sort of divinely legitimated ethno-aristocracy, where the fundamental marker of difference is formal political rights (i.e. where you are on the tributary line). In the financialization-case, we have an earthly legitimated meritocracy, the fundamental difference being economic resources (i.e. money).

Then finally there is industrialization, which I do think, as Keith also seems to, should be taken as a paradigm shift in how humans generate social inequality. For the Inkas (and this I suspect would go for many ancient civilizations), a lot of evidence points in the direction that their generation of extractive surpluses rested on cultivating their ideological dominance in sociocultural soils long predating them. To the contrary, as Huon pointed out, since industrial capitalism, the key formula of extracting surplus seems to be to break existing social structures apart.

Given that, how do you see institutions like civil courts, definitely state run, fitting with this scheme? I think there is an argument that contract law is a significant component of what lets private equity do what it does, and at this point I'm not quite clear how those types of state institution would fit into this schema

Neither am I. To explain the details would require a knowledge of legal and political history that I don't possess. That said, we anthropologists have something to say about the contexts in which earlier forms of these institutions emerged.

To me the relevant theory here starts with Franz Boas and Edward Sapir's observation that every abstraction is an imperfect model of reality. To which I would add statistician George E. Box's famous remark that while all models are wrong, some are more useful than others. That naturally raises the question useful to whom and how. It may also be worth considering the work of Leach, et al, but especially Mary Douglas, on the social conditions that affect taboos or other special treatment according to special cases that do not fit a prevailing model.

To make a long story short, if counting requires uniform measures, reality will always resist being counted, creating a need for institutions that make adjustments to circumstances. Most of civil law deals with these sorts of issues.

I am myself currently caught up in a relevant case. My parents owned some real estate. Their will states clearly that the property should be divided equally between my brother and myself. The problem is that the property in question is waterfront at the head of a tidal creek and divided by marshy sloughs into several irregular pieces. Our attempts to find an equitable distribution have, in addition, run into environmental regulations (of which, in principle, I wholly approve) that make it impossible to fill in the sloughs or build bridges across them. The various lawyers, surveyors, and county and state officials consulted in the attempt to find a solution have been having all sorts of fun. My brother and I less so.

Thus, when I go back to my China studies roots and read about the Zhou Dynasty well-field system [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Well-field_system], I can easily see why, if ever actually implemented, it quickly fell apart. Uniform, one family plots forming square blocks with a commons in the middle are subject to demographic and other circumstances. Some families flourish, others die off. Some fields are on rich, easily tilled soil; others are on rocky hillsides. What if every family is required to pay the same tax? Grievances and disputes are inevitable. Officials are required to make authoritative judgments; but that, in turn, opens the way for corruption.

These processes are not new. They are familiar to anyone who has studied ancient or medieval history in any part of the world of which I am aware. And it is these sorts of processes that have led to the diversity of laws and regulations by which states have attempted to address them. The diversity of the relevant laws, e.g., equal division of estates among sons in China vs single heirs in Japan or inclusions of daughters' shares in Sri Lanka, reflect specific histories that can only be partially understood in light of generic factors.

But enough, enough. You can see where I am going with this.

 

    Is a football game, the Olympics, or,  as Michael Scroggins just suggested, the World Cup the preferred analogy for what goes on in the financial markets of lower Manhattan?  I’m afraid these comparisons miss the point of my initial suggestion – probably the usual fate of proffering an analogy.  What I wanted, and still want, to do is establish what I take to be a crucial fact: that “Wall Street” is a cultural construct with a great deal of salience in American society/culture.  It is, if you will, a stereotype with teeth.  In his brief essay and forthcoming book, Dan is doing an admirable job (certainly very informative to me, starting from scratch as I am) of charting the workings of a system with a great deal of internal differentiation.  Private equity, venture capital, hedge fund, and family fund guys have significantly different perspectives on what they are about, with different motivations and behaviors to match.  Pretty much in the classic mode, but with a novel, non-classic subject, Dan is producing a highly competent ethnography of a group or population: this is how the group is constituted; these are its internal workings, its interrelated goals, values, behaviors.  My point is that an ethnography of Manhattan financiers, like that of a group of Amazonian Indians, cannot adequately describe them as an isolate, a self-contained system.  What they are depends on their social milieu.  Moreover, unlike that Amazonian group, Manhattan financiers – colleagues, associates, minor acquaintances of Dan’s informants? – nearly caused the collapse of the American (and global?) economy.  As a consequence of their actions, one million-plus Americans  lost their homes, more lost their jobs.  If “Wall Street” was a rather vague stereotype in American society prior to 2008, after that it has become one of the most potent symbols and galvanizers of opinion we have seen in quite some time.  Hence I urge that in order to contribute to an ongoing, white-hot discussion of American values, an ethnography of those financiers take stock of their role in transforming American society/culture as a whole.  

    To prop up my now tattered analogy of “Wall Street,” I would note that both football and the Olympics are, like Wall Street itself, the objects of intense controversy.  In professional football a long-simmering debate over brain-damage in players (until now effectively suppressed by the NFL) has come to a rolling boil with the release of the major movie, Concussion, featuring Will Smith and directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner).  No methodical account of the game is now exempt from intense public scrutiny.  Similarly, the Olympics, wracked by massive corruption, is now headed for the inferno of Brazil, with its embattled president and its favelas erupting over being walled off from the international event.  “Wall Street,” “NFL football,” and “the Olympics” have all become cultural constructs that fuel ideas, emotions, and actions on a society-wide, even global scale.  In the midst of all that, do we really care about the statistics of the latest star running back, or whether swimmer A bested swimmer B in the hundred meter event by a few seconds?  Not if we’re conducting a cultural analysis. 

    As Keith noted a few days ago, the third topic of Dan’s paper, inequality, is yet to be discussed.  I think now’s the time. 

    For starters, I’d suggest that the ongoing discussion of “value theory” and “financialization” be extended beyond the scope of whether and how, for example financialization is a commodification of money.  I don’t think we can get at the role financiers play in society by limiting our inquiry to economics or economic anthropology.  That, of course, is perfectly fine if one intends to stop at a topically competent monograph.  But if the aim is to tie that study into an analysis of the wider society, well, I don’t see the way forward.  My main concern here is that a discussion of financialization on Wall Street leaves out another “f” word for which Wall Street has become notorious (and roundly hated): fraud.  Here I would argue that “value theory” is not an exclusive province of economic anthropology, but belongs to moral philosophy.  And fraud issues from the second of the seven deadly sins, greed – immortalized as the ethic of American business by Gordon Gekko’s, “greed is good.”   The question then becomes, how does an engaged cultural anthropology confront fraud and the greed that underlies it?  If we are to get around to tying finance and value in with inequality, surely that question must be addressed, given the obscene inequality that pervades American society. 

    Here I should say I was surprised and somewhat taken aback when Keith wrote here last Monday:

 I am not interested in fraud as such -- indeed I argue that it is marginal to the main narrative of The Big Short. In any case an accusation of fraud in the private equity sector would have to be made through a government department since the stakes of a private challenge would be enormous, given the sums involved.

I’m puzzled by Keith’s interpretation of The Big Short for, as he notes here, he finds big bank fraud (again, the major economic calamity of our time) marginal to the movie’s narrative – and apparently marginal to his academic interests in “financialization” and “commodification.”  I can hardly comment on the latter, but where the movie is concerned it seems a stretch to claim that the movie’s drama issues from the shorters, as marginal outsiders, taking on the big institutions backing mortgage-backed securities and after a bit of cliff-hanging derring-do prevailing.  That, indeed, is the plot of another sort-of classic, Ocean’s 11, in which a band of outlaw-adventurers pull off a huge caper against a Las Vegas casino.  But, and here’s the rub, the investment bankers packaging and peddling securities they knew were worthless were not clueless, lumbering functionaries – they were evil, filled with, yes greed.  Otherwise, they’d never have agreed to pay billions in fines when the Justice Department came breathing down their necks.  And, to continue the theme of inequality, while the bankers’ firms paid billions, they did no jail time themselves, unlike hundreds of thousands of less-connected individuals spending years in prison for non-violent offenses. 

    Doesn’t cultural anthropology have to examine the total picture, here taking its cue from this picture:  

H. Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins 

What I wanted, and still want, to do is establish what I take to be a crucial fact: that “Wall Street” is a cultural construct with a great deal of salience in American society/culture.

Lee, that this is what you want to do has been clear from your first comment. But I, and perhaps others, have felt that to move the discussion in that direction would be to take it away from the most salient innovation in Daniel's paper, what he has to say about the different types of finance and the people who engage in them.

A second thread has now emerged, suggested by the Inka comparison. Do what extent does modern finance differ from Inka or comparable pre-modern finance institutions? To what extent does modern finance provide new answers to old problems while also reproducing the haves-get-more while the haven't-get-poor tendencies that seem to appear in most traditional empires or modern nation states regardless of economic system. Are today's Neoliberal 1% relatively richer than ordinary joes than say Elizabethan aristocrats, Chinese mandarins, the Soviet "New Class" that Milovan Djilas wrote about, or the Chinese "princelings" of post-Mao China who are now buying up Canadian real estate and cruising Vancouver streets in supercars? These, too, are interesting questions.

That said, I agree that "Wall Street" as embodied in Gordon Gekko, the characters in The Big Short and Bernie Sanders' campaign speeches is a powerful cultural construct. What I don't see from you yet is an example of how to move the analysis of that construct beyond what pundits and critic-wannabes  are already saying day after day in any number of blogs and news sites. What can anthropology add? Any fresh thoughts?

Lee, I am not a cultural anthropologist and never have been. My extended comment on The Big Short was made indirectly to Peter Wogan who replied. He found considerable agreement between us, but we differed in how much the story rested on bank fraud, both of us acknowledging that fraud was and is a huge factor in banking everywhere, not just Wall Street. I paid attention not to whatever beef I may have, but to the narrative and suggested legal reasons for soft-pedalling on the accusations. Your claim that we have an obligation to see the big picture could be an excuse for not examining the details before us.

There is an interesting link here to Daniel's invocation of Mauss's total social fact. This is in effect a rejection of his uncle's sociological reductionism. At least here, Mauss was trying to get away from academic analysis towards grasping the totality of a social movement, actually to draw on the ethnography of archaic gift-exchange for ways of imagining the dynamics of what he called an 'economic movement from below' in contemporary Paris.

I think that anthropology in all the old imperial centres -- US, Britain and France -- is in decline, even decadent. One sign of this is a timid unwillingness to stray outside the familiar boundaries of local discourse. I wouldn't try to justify this statement here. It is just another way of saying that I am not a cultural anthropologist, but have little faith in the main European alternatives. Anthropology's most radical contribution is ethnographic realism, as John pointed out, and Daniel rightly pinned his own claim to intellectual authority on this. 'I have been there and you haven't', Malinowski's mantra. But the line between us and them is increasingly blurred. Tourists pack hotels in the Trobriand Islands today and we all pick up a pidgin knowledge of global finance from the daily news.

So how do we reinvent comparison under these cricumstances? Please forgive me if I don't celebrate the juxtaposition of the Inkas with private equity firms. It smacks of taking refuge in an introverted discourse whose main point is to make anthropologists feel more comfortable. And this is the decadence that I spoke of. But at least it pushes us to consider what makes comparison rigorous and what doesn't. Beyond that, we flourish by exposing ourselves to others who do not share our traditions.

The 'decadence' seems to have to do with scale and human values -- and with the impossible scale of ideas like 'neoliberalism' and 'financialisation'. Where economists may be quite happy with money in its pure quantitative form since its cultural effects are someone else's 'business', anthropologists are concrete thinkers; they can't understand the abstract meaning of 'financialisation' because it does not correspond to any recognisable human value. For anthropologists, social processes should correspond to something observable at some level. 'Financialisation' so far as I have every gleaned from anyone 'in the know' corresponds to a pure abstraction -- Marx's M-M'; ('M-M' “en style lapidaire” so to say, money that is worth more money, value that is greater than itself').

According to Taussig the silver miners of Potosi (the inheritors of the Inka state system) humanised M-M' as 'the Devil'. Euro-Americans have taken to giving it a human form as 'The one %'. Given, though, that Marx did not satisfactorily answer the question of how M-M' corresponds to concrete life, a topic on which Baudrillard, Derrida, Bataille etc. spilt a lot of ink, anthropologists are stuck with a problem of making any connection between what they want to talk about -- human social practices, human values, human worldviews with this alien object. I think Daniel has gone a good way with his paper here.

The other side is that it is hard to understand something you are caught up in all the time (hence the need for comparision) -- every time we play the quantification game in our workplace, turn activities and relationships into quantities to be assessed, then we are also playing the game of financialisation -- doing 'its' work for 'it'.

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