Friday, July 23, 2010

More on Charismatic Financialism

Image by Aude Dieude

In his opening remarks heralding the inception of the 2010 JWTC, Achille Mbembe, senior researcher at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), crisply laid out the key themes and critical endeavors that would provide signposts for participants in the ensuing week and a half of dialogue and reflection. Mbembe described these as:

o Conceptualizing and experimenting with heuristics for the conduct of global conversation based in the South

o Thinking critically about such a conversation’s relationship to very particular urban spaces, which in turn may provide the performative realm for the playing out of new cultural moves that offer the possibility for the production of new forms of life (i.e., self-ownership, self-creation, and freedom)

o Giving careful consideration to the unique contours of wealth and property in the South African context

o Relating this local/regional scene of capital production, mobilization, and accumulation to the global circulatory network of financial capital and its ever more technocratic and opaque techniques.

Taking direct aim at the meta-discursive theme of financial capitalism’s unique influence on the global structure of feeling, Arjun Appadurai’s paper “Charismatic Financialism” provided a pointed and powerful opening to the workshop and established an extremely productive platform upon which to begin pursuing a vision of how “theorizing from the south” may offer flashes of redemptive insight in the face of the obscene scene of contemporary capitalism’s glaring social inequities.

Appadurai began his critique by situating the audience at the moment in the early 1970s when the episodic evolution of “efficient market” theory crystallized into the hegemonic basis for a new kind of dominant capitalist business model, one based on the utilization of derivatives for the identification, calculation, packaging (i.e., securitization), marketing, and selling of risk. Bearing witness to the unexpected swing toward radical indeterminacy in financialization’s neoliberal modus operandi—an interregnum precipitated by the US-led global credit crisis of 2007-08—Appadurai’s paper advanced an implicit call for the repoliticization of high finance’s narcissistic and solipsistic conception of risk and risk-management.

In this respect, “Charismatic Financialism” represented another stage in Appadurai’s confident entry into the rich field of scholarship regarding what has been productively referred to as “cultures of finance,” a nomenclature that congeals a set of debates actively shaped by disciplines operating outside of the cloistered realm of neo-classical economics and the managerial orthodoxy of the traditional Anglo-American MBA program. With an eye toward the established literature, Appadurai positioned his account in the space between the two primary strands of non-doctrinaire capitalist hermeneutics; one exemplified by economic sociology and the social science of finance’s preoccupation with what Foucault would describe as financial capital’s “micro-techniques” of power; the other categorized by an anthropologically derived focus on contemporary capitalism’s penchant for the reanimation of enchantment, magic, and luck within the popular imagination.

Poised between these two approaches, the crux of Appadurai’s critical insurgency hinged upon what he called an “odd historical telescoping” of the economic and religious sociology of Max Weber, a rich body of scholarship which Appadurai employed as the roadmap for a sophisticated genealogy of capitalism’s ethical core. Through a close re-reading of Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (viz., Die Protestantische Ethik Und Der Geist Des Kapitalismus), Appadurai traced the epistemological thread connecting Luther’s anti-capitalist Christianity to the “invisible hand” of providence in Calvin’s subsequent and decisive contribution to the Protestant Reformation. In Calvinism, the actions of human beings in the world have the ability to reflect and extend divine will, a dialectical reversal in the gift of salvation that paves the way for the market to function as a beautiful machine going about the business of what Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein infamously referred to as “God’s work.” The arc of this evolution is crucial for Appadurai for it reveals how the habitus that finance capital has fashioned in its own image emerged and ossified as common sense.

Given that Weber did not concern himself with the capitalist figure as a uniquely modern incarnation of risk and risk-taking, of what relevance, Appadurai asks, is he to the contemporary scene? On this matter, Appadurai is keen to suggest that a ghost lies embedded within financial capitalism’s quantitative risk-management devices, one that could make an uncanny and disruptive return via the eruption of model-defiant tropes of “uncertainty.” Interestingly enough, Appadurai locates this uncanny presence not within exogenous “Black Swan” events, but rather within what he calls “Device Skeptics” who operate deep within the circuitry of global capital’s circulatory motherboard. These Device Skeptics reawaken the spirit of uncertainty within modern capitalism through the dexterity with which they make daringly large bets against the herd-like behavior symptomatic of an asset price bubble. For Appadurai, the contrarian charisma put forward by “short-selling bears,” like the celebrated financier George Soros and the hedge fund apostle John Paulson, channels a kind of pre-modern ethos of uncertainty and excess reminiscent of the potlatch chiefs in traditional societies, thereby instantiating an “Uncertainty Imaginary” that lies outside of the otherwise prevailing system. Here, we can witness chance reasserting itself over “the Culture of Control.”[1]

Yet, for all of this, there remains something disturbingly unsatisfying about Appadurai’s account of these cryptic market pessimists. For, after all, we might ask, are they true charismatics, or merely synthetic facsimiles thereof? Appardauri himself confessed during the question and answer portion of the discussion that the “Charismatic Financialism” of the short-selling bears might ultimately boil down to merely just one more arbitrage opportunity among many—however colossal in scope and profitability.[2] In my own skepticism about the efficacy of regarding the proverbial “Master of the Universe” as a weirdly spectral force, I recall the scathing critique of Weber’s theory of charisma put forward recently by the late religious sociologist and cultural critic, Phillip Rieff. In his book, Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How it Has Been Taken From Us, Rieff argues that Weberian charismatic authority is merely the stuff of celebrity, a flimsy and dangerous imitation of the fire and brimstone-laced interdictions of the genuine article. So, rather than offering the “animus” of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, the Weberian charismatic merely gives a therapeutic masquerade of conflict resolution. As Rieff puts it, “our charismatics [today] are engaged in no wrestling with angels, but rather with the obeying of demons.”[3] Furthermore, he stresses, “there is no charisma without creed…there must be a conscious and intense established symbolic in the field before there can be a standard that can be used to break through that field. Doubt, skepticism, infidelity, are not charisma.” Of course, the stern ministrations of a theological scold like Rieff may in fact lead us directly to the kind of charismatic authority proffered by Osama Bin Laden, al-Shabab, and politico-evangelists like the Tea Party’s favorite son, Rand Paul.

So, ultimately, I come away from Appadurai’s brilliant exposition musing about whether “theorizing from the South” can achieve resonance by offering vigorous resistance to two diametrically opposed but tightly connected ideological systems: a) one whereby charismatic authority is wielded in the name of a market-led therapeutics where all that is solid melts into the air; and b) the other playing out as an adversarial—even violent—reinscription of a faith-based fundamentalism that Rieff describes as “holy terror.” It is from within this unlikely and harrowing aporia that the phoenix of redemption might yet arise.

Christopher Holmes Smith

University of Southern CaliforniaAnnenberg School for Communication & Journalism

[1] Jackson Lears, Something for Nothing: Luck in America (NY: Viking, 2003).

[2] Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (NY: W.W. Norton, 2010)

[3] Phillip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How it has Been Taken From Us (NY: Vintage, 2008).


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

A couple things promoted more thoughts while reading this post. Around the context of global conversations which by nature seem to exhibit themes of ownership just by one's belief of competency to anticipate and comprehend circumstances and opportunity whether they be with tech jargon or financial omnipresence. Yet, one must speculate to prepare and broaden horizons of what will be.

I find it interesting that Appadurai's perceptions of hegemonic business environments and influence by appear to forget about business players keen interest in strategy specific to targeted demographics. Moreover, the discussion of religious influence in messaging and positioning activities seem ever relevant and by nature of human leadership (both bad and good) we somehow know that contradiction and subsequent public skepticism will inevitably exist. Somehow it feels unsatisfactory the role in which societies associate organization's with identity such as some may characterize political alliances with financial sustainably or dispare.

My takeaway: Cultures of charisma, ownership, and affiliation seem constant in public leadership yet I am reminded that human's evolution in history resonates always with the conflict of ideas/belief systems that have enhanced perspectives even as they are shared in opposition.

Daniel Atwater
University of Southern California Alumni

Christopher H. Smith said...

A financial charismatic bows out...


Christopher H. Smith said...

Update on George Soros...


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