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WCF - Roundtable 2017

"Where/what is the 'critical' in critical finance studies?"

Held on Wednesday, 7th of June 2017,

with support from the PAIS department


Bill Maurer (University of California, Irvine), Johnna Montgomerie (Goldsmiths, University of London), Nathaniel Tkacz (University of Warwick), Lauren Tooker (University of Warwick)


The roundtable brought together panellists from across disciplines to discuss the contested character of the ‘critical’ in critical finance studies. Scholars of finance are often drawn into the role of critical observer. But what does it mean to adopt a critical relation to finance? What are the theoretical and methodological challenges we face? And what are the recent developments in finance to look out for?

Bill Maurer: Philanthrocapital, infrastructure, automaticity - where are the ‘choking points’?

Bill Maurer opened the panel highlighting three recent trends in finance: The shift of investment from traditional markets to non-market based financial arrangements championed by the rise of philanthropic venture capital pushing into all kinds of new areas that were traditionally not expected to yield a return; the remodeling or reorganization of financial infrastructures: payments, clearing services, trading platforms, supply chain management and so on; and the new quality of automaticity enabled by smart contracts, potentially creating tradable shares of everyday objects. What would it mean to engage critically with such developments? Maurer suggested to think about choking points: Where are these processes fragile? Is there a way to 'unplug' finance by politicizing its strategic dependence on energy grids?

Listen to the contribution by Bill Maurer:

Johnna Montgomerie: Fighting finance’s opacity – technical terms, historical hangover and intersectionality
Johnna Montgomerie continued by pointing out the way that finance’s opacity, both in terms of its terminology as well as its legal contexts, builds barriers for a critique that need to be addressed. Such ‘expert knowledge’ however is only one dimension of finance’s power. Another is its historical legacy that extends into the present. For instance, the very identity of London today is built around an image of a city of commerce and age-old political privileges of City representatives in Parliament prevail. Building from an awareness of finance’s opacity and its historical legacy, so Montgomerie, it is important for the critical project to start thinking about the intersectionality of contemporary finance and its power to produce the economy in gendered and racialized ways.

Listen to the contribution by Johnna Montgomerie:

Nathaniel Tkacz: Critique of financial devices - behaviourist interfaces and designed experience
Nathaniel Tkacz observed an inversion of the relationship between Political Economy and Media Studies whereby critical issues are gradually migrating from Political Economy terrain - labour conditions, ownership structures, etc. - to Media Studies and recent problematics of a technological mediation of economies. Tkacz illustrated, for instance, how the design of retail monetary applications is inspired by a behavioral economics model that does not expect rational-calculating economic subjects anymore. Rather consumers are approached as irrational subjects, whose preferences need to be constantly mapped through processes of perpetual data feedback. The business of finance is seen to be, at least partly, the design and creation of ‘user experiences’. What do we make of such trends? A critical approach, Tkacz suggests, needs to raise awareness of such relatively new dynamics entering the industry, and build an understanding of what they do. What kind of experiences are designed and to what financial purposes?

Listen to the contribution by Nathaniel Tkacz:
Lauren Tooker: Going to uncomfortable places: Redemptive critique and ordinary agency

Lauren Tooker began by addressing the problematic of developing a reflexive critique of finance. While we might want to move beyond a form of critique that assigns the academic a seemingly objective view on finance from above, it is often hard to take on a more reflexive position, because it forces us to engage with the uncomfortable contradictions and ambiguities in the field. Financial resistance movements can be confronted by problems of gender and race; neoliberal imaginaries sometimes yield surprising democratic politics. To develop a sensitivity to such counter intuitive findings, Tooker suggests moving away from a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ towards more reflexive forms of ‘redemptive critique’. The challenge to build such a situated approach relates to a second challenge highlighted by Tooker - to conceive of ordinary agency. Despite the recent (re-)turn to the everyday in IPE, ordinary agency is often not taken seriously. The challenge is an approach that allows us to think with and alongside people, rather than for them. Finally, Tooker suggested a need to move from the apparent divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ finance to focus on the porous interface between public and private, so as to ask critical political questions of finance.

Listen to the contribution by Lauren Tooker: