Is This Capitalism? If Not, Then What Is It?

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

"Business Leaders of Today are Not Capitalists," shouted the Financial Times headline several weeks ago. The article went on to describe how, inside the largest financial institutions, leaders are today chosen not for their entrepreneurial skills, their instinct for risk, their interest in making money even, but for their ability to schmooze and negotiate with government bureaucrats. Those with connections to governmental elites from their school days who have proven themselves agile at institutional and bureaucratic politics are the new titans of the economy.

Why? The article doesn't go there, but I think the answer is obvious. Today, money is made primarily from government give-aways of one kind or another—subsidies, bail-outs, regulatory regimes favorable to industry. The game is now not about making markets but ensuring you get as much as possible from the state, or at least more than your competitors. Contrary to a decade ago when industry leaders decried the "nanny state," today they line up to be coddled.

So what should we anthropologists of markets make of this new reality? And what of the fact that it doesn't take an anthropologist to get this far: the FT, bastion of mainstream opinion in the financial industry, has already done the analytical work. What can we add to the mix?

To my mind, the core question and contribution anthropologists can make at this moment is similar to the contribution that Hayek and the Vienna School made at the close of World War II when, as today, the consensus about markets, states, and their relationships was shattered and the ideological field was wide open. As Foucault recounts in his lectures on biopolitics, those guys fashioned a new consensus, a set of givens, and worked hard to turn them into the hegemony they became. The results spoke for themselves: until today it was largely impossible to think outside the view that markets were more legitimate than states and that state intervention in markets should be corrective, and hence reactive and limited, but not "dirigiste".

We could have a vibrant and exciting debate about what the contours of this new consensus should look like, as a descriptive project and as a normative project.

For example, half of me finds myself rooting for the good old Hayekian days when markets were markets, losers lost, and innovation was the way to profit maximization.

So I was excited to see the petition by Public Citizen to the Federal Reserve to break up the banks that are deemed Too Big To Fail.

The occupy wall street folks made a similar proposal. The argument in a nutshell is, "you told us that the rules were that capitalism produces winners and losers and that tough love toward the losers ultimately raises all boats. You forced us, the workers, the small businesses, the underemployed, to live by those rules, so the least you should do is live by those rules now. Allowing firms that are too big to fail to exist is an admission that there are two sets of capitalist rules--rules for the insiders and rules for the rest of us."

One of the reasons I like this proposal is that, having studied the Too Big to Fail (TBTF) issue quite extensively from the vantage point of fieldwork among government technocrats, I can confidently say that most technocrats agree that this would be the best solution. But they believe that it is politically unpalatable because ultimately those TBTF institutions control the political process and will make sure that legislators do not allow technocrats to stick to market rules. I bet the Fed was actually really really happy to get this petition in fact. So here is a kind of political initiative on the part of the citizenry that we anthropologists could champion, in part because it dispenses with the usual divide between technocratic elites and ordinary citizens who are assumed to be well-meaning but know nothing about finance. This initiative potentially gives technocrats the power to do what they "know" to be right (from the vantage point of their Hayekian ideology) and pits technocrats and citizens together against the big banks.

That is one way to go. But my instinct is that as tempting as this may be, we should be doing something even more bold. My guess is that we should not just hold the Hayekians to their Hayekian bargains but rather recognize that the world is changing and set out to build the new consensus. And here there are all kinds of other interesting developments we might want to investigate and weave into a new kind of analysis. For example, what do we make of the sudden prominence of religion in debates about capitalism--not only in "alternative" forms of capitalism but right at the heart of North Atlantic economies? And what do we make of the fact that spokespersons for mainstream religion, who, in our social theory since Weber, are imagined as supporters of capitalism, are emerging as powerful critics? I am thinking here of the statements by both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury in support of Occupy Wall Street. In Japan also one hears many allusions to Buddhism, Shinto and other religious traditions in political debate about market regulation. There are many possible understandings of such statements but I wonder if along with the collapse of confidence in rational modes of risk management, prediction and planning we are seeing the beginnings of a new appreciation for the metaphysical and existential issues posed by markets, the kinds of issues anthropologists and sociologists of finance since Weber have eloquently demonstrated. What happens to the ideological consensus of market/state relations when such issues come to the forefront of market participants' own consciousness?

Another set of issues have to do with the decline of the North Atlantic economies and the rise of Asia in particular. How does this new reality, accepted as such by all of my informants, and the ensuing debate they are having about multiple forms of capitalism, the relationship between capitalism and culture and so on, reconfigure the possibilities for a new post-Hayekian consensus about what makes markets work and why? These are just two small examples of how and why this is an exciting moment to be an anthropologist of markets. As one of my informants put it, we are in a counter-cyclical business: when things are really bad for everyone else, our work is full of possibilities.