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The Sexy History of Banking

On April 4, I had the privilege of acting as a commentator for papers from Stefan Eich and Christine Desan for a symposium entitled Cutting The Gordian Knot of Finance. I'm still reading their other work, which I highly recommend. Here are a couple of takeaways (which I probably could have done a better job of summarizing in my talk, I was trying to relate their work to some stuff I'm working on about EB-5 financing and the Oceanwide project downtown... pictured here):

Eich's new book is The Currency of Politics. He gives a genealogy of the concept of neutral money while theorizing money as a hybrid object, both a social construct with a specific (subjective) history and a quantitative (objective) function. It's neither purely an expression of interested political power nor a purely disinterested technology.

  • “Money is not reducible to either trade or taxes. Instead, it is an ambivalent political project suspended between trust and violence.” (Currency 31)

  • “The real question that thus haunts the politics of money is not the persistence of inflation due to irresponsible politicians but why elected leaders have been so eager to abrogate control over money.” (Eich 689)

Desan is something of a giant in the study of capitalism, her 2014 book Making Money: coin, currency and the coming of capitalism was a landmark in economic history. The focus of her talk was the history of banking. What you need to know here is that she gave a clear and forceful explanation of the way that banks evolved to solve a money shortage: Banks create money, and they owe their ability to do so to their public position.

I was there, functionally, to act as a link from the world of "public-facing" writing—among experts on the history and philosophy of money, I was the representative from the land of narrative, there to think about how you might get people on the outside to understand why something like the history of banking is so important.

Calling something "sexy," is a cheap, clickbait tactic (see Amin's article, below!), but did my title get you to look?

Desan 's work grounds a democratic justification for changing the way banks work. The public's investment and belief in the state's democratic ability to assert power over banks is... sexy! I'm telling you, it was worth a shot.

Martijn Konings, author of the excellent Capital and Time: For A New Critique of Neoliberal Reason and the forthcoming book from Polity on The Bailout State, organizes these generative symposia and is a friend and colleague, he's at the University of Sydney. He and Amin Samman (who just published this excellent piece on Clickbait Capitalism) run the Finance and Society Network. Watch this space for news about more work from the symposium.

I always feel that I'm something of an interloper in this space, coming from media studies and English, but I'm also immensely grateful for interlocutors from the social sciences and political theory. I feel that increasingly, my expertise is in a kind of code switching. I can only do this work if I'm able to immerse myself in the finance-heavy vocabularies from time to time.

It's not easy to engage meaningfully with the history of what have become wildly complex financial systems and their relationship with democracy. This only makes the translation gig increasingly important. The more finance metastasizes into a global crisis-prone octopus of extraterritorial power, the more important it gets to relate financial history to praxis in a democracy. How you get people to care about the dry technical details of money's ontology? Maybe by making clear how money and the banks emerge from—and therefore belong to—the collective.

Footnote: I presented by Zoom. From the bird's eye view of the room that the camera gave me, it seemed like the place was vast and dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows giving out on stormy Australian weather conditions. I felt like I was looking down at a crowd of 40 people inside a monsoon. Trick of perspective. It actually looked like this:


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