Recently I learned that my book The Emotional Logic of Capitalism has been awarded the Transdisciplinary Humanities Book Award, sponsored by the Humanities Research Institute at Arizona State University. The award is given each year to “a non-fiction work that exemplifies transdisciplinary, socially engaged humanities-based scholarship.” The list of previous awardees show the wide range of work considered to fall under this heading, and I am grateful to the Institute’s Director Sally Kitch and the Board for selecting my book. I’m looking forward to visiting the Institute in the fall.
Of course recognition of one’s work is always nice, but there is something particularly gratifying about receiving this award. One reason would be that I did not in fact realize that the book had been nominated (many thanks to my wonderful Stanford editor Emily-Jane Cohen!). More to the point, going down the path that eventually led to the writing of this book has not been free of occasional professional uncertainty. Having been trained as a meat-and-potatoes political economist, and having done most of my early work on the question of power in American finance, The Emotional Logic of Capitalism is a more theoretical work that draws on perspectives and fields that are not usually brought to bear on questions of money and finance – semiotics, psychoanalyis, pragmatism, religious history, among others. Contemporary academia does not always take kindly to interdisciplinary work, so the recognition bestowed on the book by this award is gratefully received.
So what led me to write the book, and why did I feel it was necessary to venture deeply into social theory to make sense of questions of money and finance? Let’s go back for a moment to the financial crisis of 2007-08. Progressively minded commentators immediately took this event as announcing the end of neoliberal capitalism, and they loudly declared an imminent return to Keynesian intervention and public regulation. Such arguments are closely associated with the revival of Polanyi’s work, which sees capitalist history as driven by alternating movements of market disembedding (when the speculative and individualizing logic of the market spirals out of control) and re-embedding, (when society regroups and resubordinates markets to the public good). In the book I take this “double movement” model as emblematic of a highly influential but problematic way of thinking about economic and financial life.
The idea of the double movement has turned out to be a poor guide to the development of capitalism since the financial crisis: instead of a break with the politics of financial expansion, what we got was a neoliberalism recharged. My book is essentially an extended reflection on the deeper – psychological and emotional – sources of resilience that capital can tap into and that have eluded the tendency to understand it in terms of the Polanyian image of market disembedding. To this end, it recovers the moral and theological origins of the concept of “economy,” arguing that our relationship to money is regulated by a complex infrastructure of affectively charged (inter)subjective investments. In this way, the book develops an understanding of economy that is critical but takes seriously the idea that money and markets have self-organizing and self-regulating properties.
The second part of the book traces how, over the course of the twentieth century, progressive thought gradually lost sight of the emotional and theological content of economy. It argues that the turn to a disembedding narrative should be understood as the way progressive thinkers have sought to come to terms with the disappointments of democratic capitalism. To lament the speculative and individualizing character of the market always seems like a promising move in the moment – it offers a way to make a critical point that is relatable and so offers a particular kind of rhetorical traction. But over time it has resulted in a critique that is moralistic and increasingly unable to engage the complex, subterranean ways and often not fully conscious ways in which people are invested in (neoliberal) capitalism.
The book can be read as a way of doing political economy that is different from where it is currently heading in its leading journals – which is characterized by a definite and growing scepticism about the value of theory. That sentiment is no doubt understandable, as one of political economy’s main concerns has always been the “reality-blindness” of the formal models that mainstream economists build. But not doing theory is doing theory by default, and the current sway of the Polanyian model seems to me to be a result of a reluctance to revisit thorny but fundamental conceptual issues.
For interested readers, elsewhere on PPE I have elaborated these points with more specific reference to the question of austerity politics, and this discussion by my colleague Fiona Allon provides an excellent account of the book’s key conceptual moves. The book’s introduction can be read here.