Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category.

Money in the making of world society: lessons from the euro crisis

Europe in the global economic crisis

I have been writing about the euro for a decade (Hart 2002, 2007a, 2012), always from a critical perspective, since I have long believed that a single currency cannot address the needs of a large and diverse region. Moreover, the European Union’s ambition to transcend national capitalism by becoming a federal power in the world economy was always compromised by yoking member states to a system whose logic harks back to the gold standard. The contradictions of this fixed exchange-rate regime, conceived of in the euphoria of the “free market’s victory” in the Cold War, were disguised by the long credit boom. Even the financial crisis brought about by the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 was at first represented by Europe’s elites as largely an “Anglo-Saxon” problem. The Italian finance minister joked that his country’s banks were sound since their managers didn’t speak English! The French social model, which Sarkozy had been elected to reform, began to look more attractive overnight. The last three years have seen one failed half-measure after another as the region’s leaders consistently underestimated what was needed to fix the growing sovereign debt crisis in Southern Europe. Germany has become at once a lot stronger and more isolated in the process.

A brief sketch of the history of the global economic crisis is in order. The conversion of the whole world to free market capitalism (“neoliberal globalization”) in the early 1990s coincided with a digital revolution in communications. Wall Street took the lead in exploiting these new possibilities. After the dot com boom crashed in 2000, a regime of low interest rates fuelled speculation in property. American bankers discovered that there was more to be made from lending to people without any money (mortgages, credit card debt) than to people who have some, since higher interest rates could be charged and assets could be seized on default. This led to the invention of “sub-prime” mortgages, lending to borrowers who could not hope to repay, then packaging these debts with other sounder loans for sale in the capital markets with the highest credit ratings possible (Jorion 2007). The banks also insured against bad loans using new instruments such as “credit default swaps” and “collateral debt obligations” (Tett 2010). As the bubble picked up steam, leverage rates escalated; some banks and especially the insurance group, AIG, became wildly over-exposed. The expectation that the bubble would last for ever led to the use of computer models that had no place for a decline in housing prices. Continue reading ‘Money in the making of world society: lessons from the euro crisis’ »

The euro crisis seen as an episode in the history of money

We all began by talking about a financial crisis and now we fear an unprecedented global economic crisis. At the centre of the second, but initially not of the first, lies the potential collapse of the euro as a regional single currency and rival to the dollar as a world currency. The link between these two moments, 2007-8 and 2011-12, is the persisting idea that we are facing the failure of specific financial institutions in the context of a boom/bust cycle of credit and debt. By taking a broader view of money than its current identification with finance, I aim to historicise the present crisis by placing it within a long-term narrative of social development, in the process offering a new explanation for our economic problems. As the economic crisis deepens, it is increasingly seen as a result of political failure, in sharp contrast to what came before, when politics was viewed as a hindrance to or mere consequence of markets. The euro is by no means the only symptom of this crisis, but it may well be seen in retrospect as the decisive nail in the coffin of the world economy today. Continue reading ‘The euro crisis seen as an episode in the history of money’ »

The euro: old wine in a new jar (update 2002-2009)

This short article was published in 2002 by the Geneva-based journal, Finance and the Common Good, soon after the euro was launched as a physical currency. Its main argument was that the euro is a national monopoly currency extended to a larger territory which could not possibly meet the economic needs of so diverse a collection of countries and regions. The failure of the Maastricht treaty had been to insist on member states replacing their national currencies with the euro, when it would have made more sense to float their own politically managed currencies alongside a ‘hard’ euro. For the next five years this problem was obscured by general economic growth and appreciation of the euro against its major rival, the US dollar. But the subprime mortgage issue and especially the fall of Lehman Brothers a year ago revealed the shaky foundations of the credit boom and has plunged all countries into deep financial crisis. It is only now that the flaws of the euro system have become evident. So I reproduce the original article here and then add an update written in the light of what we know now.

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The euro coins and notes were introduced on 1st January 2002, with some hopes of a new era for Europe. It is no small thing when 300 million people agree to use a single currency, thereby cancelling national currencies with claims of a continuous link to the middle ages. The euro is a modernist event, if ever there was one, a decisive break with the past, symbolizing the birth of a new social order. Or is it? We need to recapitulate what money is and what it does, before we can answer that question. Accordingly, I review some important dimensions of money:

Money as idea and object —’money of account’ and ‘money proper’ (Keynes);
Money as ‘heads & tails’, the impersonal expression of states and markets;
Money as memory, a meaningful link between persons and communities;
Money as a source of economic democracy, when issued by the people.

Then I assess the euro in the light of these four dimensions, asking whether it offers a measure of emancipation from the limitations of the currencies it replaced. Continue reading ‘The euro: old wine in a new jar (update 2002-2009)’ »

Money and anthropology: object, theory and method

This essay started out as an attempt to study the euro from an anthropological point of view; but it has ended up being more about anthropological method and money in general. Even so, a focus on the new European currency leads me to ask how we might study transnational or even global phenomena like this and still call ourselves anthropologists. For when ethnographers are not restricting their research to fieldwork in a particular place, they still tend to be limited in scope to working in one country. Social anthropology was once remarkable for the unity of its object, theory and method; but this disappeared along with “primitive” societies. Anthropologists still cling to “fieldwork-based ethnography” as their professional calling, but the study of money needs more than this. I propose as anthropology’s new object the making of world society, adopting provisionally an eclectic approach to theory and method. Anthropologists must appropriate both common knowledge and that of other specialists, if we are to identify the “historicity” (Foucault, 1973) of our own intellectual practices.

I approach the anthropology of money through four themes:

Money as memory, a meaningful link between persons and communities
Money as idea and object, the rise of virtual economy
Money as ‘heads & tails’, the impersonal expression of states and markets
Money as what people use it for, the potential for economic democracy

Following Marx, I conceive of ‘commoditization’ as a historical dialectic of social abstraction that is closely linked to the rise of money as a universal social principle. If we do things for each other in society, these services have to be separated from what we do for ourselves. This process draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence based on calculated exchange. The money circuit is becoming detached from production, trade and politics. I ask if the euro is something new or a throwback to older forms. In future people everywhere will issue their own money instruments. Meanwhile, the euro’s movement in history offers a glimpse of where world society is heading. Money is a suitable strategic focus for anthropological study of that society. Continue reading ‘Money and anthropology: object, theory and method’ »

Reflections on a visit to Normandy

The family took a trip to Normandy based on Caen, home to William the Conqueror (formerly known as the Bastard) and the Memorial to World War II. We went to Bayeux for the tapestry and visited the beaches of the Normandy landings in June 1944. We were exposed to a bombardment of images and sounds, all of them evoking the war. The weather was freezing, the sky blue and the winter sun cast a pale light on the landscape. We took in the buildings and the fine regional cuisine: there is nowhere like France for reliable pleasures of that sort.

The weekend had a considerable impact on me and not just the car crash (to which I will return). I spent my first year in a Manchester bomb shelter and it took a long time for the devastation to be cleared up after the war. I am a keen historian too. So it’s not as if this stuff is new to me. Even so, the vivid immediacy of it all made a deep impression, forcing me to reflect again on what that war means for us today. The symmetry of two historic invasions 900 years apart, in the same places and from opposite directions, set off a sort of poetry of association. Continue reading ‘Reflections on a visit to Normandy’ »

Notes on the counter-revolution

The period since 1945 saw a revolution in world society which, by the 1990s, had turned into widespread popular emancipation from the repressive state controls installed during the Cold War. The world was becoming more connected and more unequal at the same time, but people in general enjoyed more freedom than ever before. Since the millennium, an attempt has been made, led by but not restricted to the United States, to screw the lid back on. The battle cry of this counter-revolution is the war against terrorism, its theme-song, security, security and yet again security. Freedoms that came to be taken for granted after the war against fascism are now being lost. The left is disoriented and impotent. Who is the enemy and what is to be done? The fragments below reflect the confusion of our era, but they do point to a possible political strategy. They were written in two places at different times, in Europe and in America. Continue reading ‘Notes on the counter-revolution’ »

The theft of history

In 1900, about four-fifths of the planet’s land was controlled by people of European origin. Although European expansion was by then four centuries old, this land grab had largely taken place in the previous half-century and for most of Africa in the last two decades. It was manned by the world’s first population explosion, when European death rates fell faster than birth rates from the 1830s, and was enabled by rapid improvements in technologies for inflicting death on others. It is hardly surprising that the Europeans asked themselves how they came to enjoy what sometimes seemed like an effortless superiority over all-comers. This was also the time when modern anthropology was born with the aim of finding answers. The means seem obviously enough now to have been industrial capitalism, that combination of big money and machine production that took off around 1800 in Britain and a few other places. But where did this come from? It had to be something in the culture of Europeans that accounted for their successful application of scientific rationality to the task of world domination. Soon enough this cultural perception was given a biological foundation as a racial hierarchy with whites at the top, blacks at the bottom and brown and yellow people in between. So, when world society was launched by western imperialism in the course of the nineteenth century, it took the highly unequal form of a racial order which most people had been coerced into joining. Not only the anthropologists, but western historians, philosophers and social theorists set out to explain this European triumph in self-congratulatory terms. And most of them are still content to do so. Continue reading ‘The theft of history’ »

British social anthropology’s nationalist project

We are all indebted to David Mills (Anthropology Today, October 2003) for his well-informed account of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA). We need reliable histories if we are to make sense of our own murky times and chart a way forward. Mills, thanks to careful research, a dispassionate style of writing and extensive scrutiny from the profession, has produced what I hope will be a consensual basis for future debate about the forms of association anthropologists need today, if any. Here I bring a more subjective line to the reconstruction of our shared past, fragmented present and precarious future. I argue that British social anthropology drew strength in its prime from the twilight of empire, when it seemed that European thought could make a universal object of the world’s peoples, especially those who lacked their own history. But the discipline’s social function was less in shoring up a fading imperialism than in reproducing a nationalist metaphysics at home. Continue reading ‘British social anthropology’s nationalist project’ »

British National Identity: The Roots of the Crisis

‘Western values’ have officially remained more or less the same since the liberal revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas society has since been transformed — first by industrial capitalism and the nation-state, now by corporations running amok in an increasingly integrated world economy. For at least a century western societies have been based on impersonal principles (the state, capitalist markets, science) which placed an intolerable strain on the idea of personal agency that underpins what we are told is our way of life. The result is considerable confusion, a mixture of passivity in the face of anonymous forces and craving for recognition as a unique personality. This existential crisis sometimes takes the form of questioning national identity. Continue reading ‘British National Identity: The Roots of the Crisis’ »

French anthropology and the riots

Didier Fassin began his commentary on French anthropology’s non-response to last year’s riots (AT February 2006) with a reminder that an army of Andean ethnographers likewise missed the rise of Shining Path in Peru. While his subject matter is specifically French, the issue of anthropology’s relationship to contemporary society is a general one.

Fassin’s editorial begs for a sociological analysis of the discipline’s national predicament. Some readers may have recently received a letter asking them to oppose anthropology’s apparent demotion within the administrative structures of the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). The discipline’s marginality in France is not new. The fast track into the national educated elite (competitive entry to the École normale supérieure, agrégation etc) never had a place for anthropology; and the country’s leading anthropologists (Mauss, Lévi-Strauss, Godelier) were often first agrégé in philosophy. The recent reorganization of the French universities has further entrenched sociology’s dominance over the smaller anthropology section. Continue reading ‘French anthropology and the riots’ »