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William R. Neil
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Anthropology has done many things over the years for citizens of the "first world" trying to understand allegedly "exotic" cultures. It has shown us the humanity beneath the too easy stereotypes about foreign lands and cultures, and often revealed their surprisingly complex systems of practices and values. It has also held up a mirror to "modern" world values - one which has not always been flattering to our own self-images and definitions of how we think things "have to be" organized. Would it be unfair to say, then, that anthropology has had just a bit of the "deflator" about it, having a partly unintended message, implicit at least, and sometimes more than that, a message of a shared humanity despite the differences, especially for the high-perched civilization that would be receiving the field reports? The exercise of observing and reporting has also raised those exquisite modern methodological problems of "the Western white upper-middle class male anthropologist studying the less-powerful `native' in the context of the colonial and postcolonial encounter." That's author and anthropologist Karen Ho's voice inside the quotation marks, and she's set out to take contemporary readers on a journey to what she calls "the new exotic:" not to some newly discovered culture in the South Pacific, but instead to the seat of the most powerful symbol of the economic forces of modern day, "free-market" capitalism and "globalization" - Wall Street itself - via her fascinating book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.
And to this effort I say: why not? Economists, historians, reporters, and even Rolling Stone writers have thrown everything they've got at trying to explain Wall Street behavior, especially in the wake of the great financial crisis - and to what effect, we have to ask, if by effect is meant an easing of The Street's hold over our elected officials in Washington? When I use the term "Wall Street," I mean to cast it additionally in the role of chief augur of that difficult deity, part secular and part religious, "The Market," which casts such a pervasive, chilly shadow over so much of modern life. Although Ms. Ho's main focus is upon investment banks, when she uses the term "Wall Street," she inclusively means "the concentration of financial institutions and actor-networks (investment banks, pension and mutual funds, stock exchanges, hedge funds and private equity firms) that embody a particular financial ethos and set of practices, and act as primary spokespeople for the globalization of U.S. capitalism." (Page 4).
One of the main impediments to greater citizen understanding of what has happened to all of us under the ominous shadow of both The Street and The Market is the shield of abstraction, of impenetrability, which surrounds them. That is nowhere more apparent than in the daunting nature of their derivative "products," such as mortgage-backed- securities, credit default swaps, and interest rate swaps, which have been the focus of so much analysis, if not understanding, during the crisis. Yet what was it that enabled The Street to have such a hold over us all, to market these incomprehensible investment instruments so easily? Karen Ho acknowledges the power of those abstractions over us, noting that "many academic critics of market fundamentalism inadvertently take as foundational the notion that the economy has become `disembedded' from society, that financial market logics - as utopian ideals - are being used to abstractly shape social relations, leading to social violence and inequality on a global scale..."(Page 33.) She also takes note of the trend towards "dematerialization," away from making physical things and towards more ephemeral financial inventions. Yet she offers us, in Liquidated, a very different approach, and asks: what if we stopped accepting all the abstractions about The Market, and the aura of The Street, and actually looked at "the local, cultural habitus of investment bankers, the mission-driven narratives of shareholder value, and the institutional culture of Wall Street?" In blunter terms, she says "allowing finance to be simply abstract lets it off the hook."(Page 34.)
There are really two main strands to Ho's work: Wall Street practices, and the values behind them. Of course, there is a close connection between the two, and they often shade into one another. We're going to look first at some of the startling practices of The Street, of the investment banks, in particular, and then at the values presented in a long series of interviews Ho conducted - the heart of her field work - which allows the practitioners to tell us in their own words what they believe they are doing in their job, how they see themselves in relation to corporate America, and what it means for the broader economy.
But before that, some facts, and thoughts, about Ho herself. She doesn't waste any time in putting her own values on the line. In the Acknowledgements, she tells us that "an intellectual commitment to social and economic justice first galvanized this book's journey" and that her "search to understand the massive sea changes occurring in American business practices during the past three decades took me to the doorstep of Wall Street investment banks..." And on the first page of the Introduction, we learn further that it was the massive lay-offs at ATT in 1995 and that decade's compulsive downsizings, often resulting from "merger and acquisition" syndrome - and the celebratory mood on Wall Street towards these job loss tsunamis - that really got her started. So one wonders, right away, how did someone with values like these ever make it inside The Street? Well, Ms. Ho had some credentials that we come to understand The Street looks upon very favorably, primarily, her Stanford and Princeton degrees, and also the sense that Wall Street seems favorably disposed to the Asian association with smarts and hard work. So she was hired at Bankers Trust in 1996 as a "`internal management consultant,'" but lasted just a brief time before getting "liquidated" herself. Nonetheless, she was able to network well enough to conduct 17 months of field work from February of 1998 to June, 1999, across a range of institutions.
I suppose these facts, as well as her descriptions of what she had to do in her last months actually working on The Street, might lead some observers to render the judgement that Ms. Ho has some "axes to grind." Yet she presents her field work findings with a remarkably light touch, allowing generous room for Wall Street's finest to tell us what they are up to and how they justify it. In her interviews, in her own questions and gentle coaxings, she reminded me very much of the verbal style of Public Radio's Terry Gross, the voice behind the "Fresh Air" interviews. So there is no ax-wielding by Professor Ho here, just some finely turned dissection with very sharp mental instruments. And, interestingly enough, there are no charges of Wall Street hypocrisy made, or to be made, from the findings. In fact, we learn that Wall Street, in matters of hard work, its own self-inflicted job insecurities, the focus on the short term performance of the stock market, and its own corresponding lack of planning, is consistent with the values and pressures it applies to the rest of corporate America. I don't know whether that finding comes as a relief to readers or not. As for me, the code of Wall Street is scary enough in its implications for our economic and civic life not to need any hypocrisy to embellish the damage that has been done.
Wall St. at Harvard and Princeton: "A Communal Obsession"
As we continue to ask ourselves, "how could it all have happened," that is, the financial crisis that nearly plunged the world into a second Great Depression, we should not forget the nature of the salespeople who peddled the faulty investments which almost brought it on. That's conveyed to us in a startling way in Chapter One, which Ho has entitled "Biographies of Hegemony." In an interview (individual names are changed, the institutions' kept) with a "Robert Hopkins, a vice president of mergers and acquisitions at Lehman Brothers," the pitch is: "`We are talking about the smartest people in the world. We are! They are the smartest people in the world. If you (the average investor or the average corporation) don't know anything, why wouldn't you invest with the smartest people in the world? They must know what they are doing.'"(Page 40.) Now where do you find the smartest people in the world? Arguably, but conventionally, the answer would be mostly at Harvard, Princeton and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Why not MIT, and Stanford, and what's the matter with Yale? Well, maybe it isn't quite all about smartness. In fact, it's about cultural projection too: clothes, confidence, aggressiveness contained within good manners, body image...in brief, it's smartness well-packaged, because salesmanship for financial products, deals and mergers, scanning the horizon for new customers, depends on wide business networking and social interaction with corporate America, and beyond...as we will see shortly. So sorry MIT, Ho tells us ("too nerdy"), Yale ("too liberal") and Stanford ("too far" - from Wall Street, that is)...
Two things jolted me about this smartness motif and the recruiting process at Princeton and Harvard. One is the astounding numbers of undergraduates that want to ascend into this celestial orbit; at Princeton, from 37% of the class of 2001 up to 40% of the class of 2005 & 2006 "entered financial services," with similar numbers for Harvard. How could that be done? The answer is not pretty: Wall Street's presence "dominates campus life: recruiters visit the university virtually every week, even on weekends...the recruiting process saturates almost every aspect of campus life from the very first day of the academic year."(Page 45.) Ho presents us with a two page spread of "Goldman Sachs Recruitment Schedule at Harvard University, 2000-2001," and I count 30 or so events, multiples in every month from September through February. It's so Wall Street saturated at these schools that Ho says "a glance at the campus publications...demonstrates what amounts to a communal obsession..." (Page 53.)
It was in the light of Ho's illumination that I read with great interest Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust's September 6, 2009 NY Times Op-Ed, "The University's Crisis of Purpose." It's a retrospective and lamentation at the same time, in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis, and what universities had become, unable to "expose the patterns of risk and denial" contained in that "bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism..." She asks if "universities (became) too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve" and, "has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?" Noting the trend, since the 1970's, for business degrees to outnumber by a 2:1 ratio the next most popular major, she reaffirms a mission for higher education to "offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present." This sounds hopeful, but the trends of 30 years of Market Utopianism, and the vast shadow cast by The Market, will not be lifted in an instant, barring a further economic catastrophe on the scale of the Great Depression.
Readers who would to see more commentary on Liquidated, and other works, are invited to visit a longer essay: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Market at [...]