Friday, August 11, 2017

Ninth International Critical Finance Studies Conference

Last Friday and Saturday, I attended the Ninth International Critical Finance Studies Conference at Leicester University. It was presented as 'a celebration of the live and work of Randy Martin'.

Unfortunately I was unable to make the opening keynote from Joyce Goggin on the Thursday. Joyce was presenting on the Financialiazation of Childhood and the Gamification of Finance'. I did turn up in good time for start of play on the Friday though and jumped straight into a session on 'Moral Economies'.

Before I get into the various papers and the thoughts and ideas they sparked off in my head, I should first say a few words about the conference as a whole and about what I understand from the term 'Critical Finance'.

My approach to the academic study of money is very simple (which suits me as being a philosopher/van-driver means taking my head out of books and calling everyone 'mate' for extended periods and so I need an easy way to slip back into the groove of academic thought and analysis). My approach then, is to put MONEY at the centre, and work out from there. So, I never claim to be studying within one particular discipline and examining Money through that lens, rather I focus on Money and try to view it from various perspectives. This is a rather promiscuous way of doing things. Although I always seem to be in a long term relationship with psychoanalysis and so my view of Money is probably always to some degree influenced by that (and the philosophies underscoring or implied by it) .

I'm not actually sure what Critical Finance/Critical Studies/Critical Theory *is*. But two things. I get the feeling that at some (deep) level Freud is always present (which suits me). And I like the idea that society, and economics particularly, operate with 'ideologies' and that all institutions - including academia - are subject to and operate, in some sense, from within these ideological perspectives. Therefore a perspective that is inherently critical serves - at the very least - to tease apart this ideological architecture. Obviously there is a symmetry here with my arguments about money burning - my friend Cassie Thornton recently suggested that it might be the a very powerful form of 'decolonization' (a term which I think Randy Martin used a lot).

My musings on Critical Theory etc aside, it's really interesting and challenging then, to come across the ideas of someone like the late Randy Martin. Randy's work on finance, money and economy was born from his understanding of movement gained through dance. He was a dancer before he became an academic. (Check out this piece via John Hogan Morris)

Randy's perspective has the enticing advantage of being completely new to me. I'd never even considered even thinking about money in this way. I have often thought about how I DON'T understand/appreciate dance. I occasionally get glimmers of what I'm missing. Indeed I had one just a couple of weekends before the conference. I was in a pub garden with Sally and Amy on a live music night. There were loads of kids running around. During one song a young girl, who'd have been nine or ten, I guess, took herself off under a tree just beside the temporary stage and danced by herself. She wasn't just bopping around though, she was making fluid, considered movements and look totally lost in what she was doing. Watching her I realized that even if I couldn't appreciate the beauty (and therefore the truth) of dance, that she could. And that 'appreciation' - and understanding of its truth - was not in a direct logical relation with the movement.

However, as that last paragraph might suggest, the problem of using 'dance' as a way of understanding money resides in language used. There is a communication barrier to cross. The last keynote at the conference confessed that he often had trouble understanding what Randy was saying in his writing. And the language used within Critical Studies generally - all the 'tivities' and the 'logics etc - can create a little distance. But none of these 'language problems' should be used as a means to dismiss or negate the value of the understanding of these different perspectives. I'm very clear in my own work that materialist/objective techno-scientific rational functionalist approaches to understanding money are very limited and will always fail to give a complete and deep understanding of the nature of money.

Plus, of course, every area of academic study - and every economic niche - has its own language and/or dialect. We should all *try* to understand one another.

I don't tend to take notes. I never have. Not even in lectures when I was student at the LSE. I might draw a diagrammatic picture with a few key words, or just note down a couple of words, but I'm not a note-taker. It just doesn't work for me, personally.

So I'm not going to give you a run-down of the papers presented. But instead this will be more a scatter-gun approach and maybe you can get the flavour of the conference from that.

Going back to the dance thing, let me start with the session I found most perplexing which was on 'Alternative Logics'. The first talk by Dr Christian De Cock told us all about what sounds like a really exciting project that you can read about on - if I can find a way to lever in Money Burning to their activities then I will.

It was the second talk by Ann-Christine Frandsen, Keith Hoskin, Skip McCoun and Solmaz Rohani that left me intrigued but perplexed. So much so, that despite what I said a second ago, it caused me to take the following notes 'Naming and Counting - Non-GlottoGraphic'. I'm still not sure what it means. But those of you who've read The Money Burner's Manual will know that I have a particular fascination with counting (as the product of the primal psychoanalytic trauma) and especially with 'naming'.... I talk about 'becoming' Money Burning Guy.

'in naming the mental being of man communicates itself to God.'
'[naming] .... is the innermost nature of language itself.'
'God's creation is completed when things receive their names from man...'
Walter Benjamin On Language as such and on the Language of Man

Keith, who talked about naming and counting in terms statements and discourse (instead of language), was the one who body-slammed me intellectually. I was softened up by Ann-Christine who started the talk with a lot of physical movement and visual imagery (oddly enough a video of a van driving along a road, something which I live, about eight hours each day). But as unusual as this mode-of-communication was, I kind of got what she was saying. It was when Keith put those ideas into an academic language that my head exploded.

I have the dim apprehension then that something at the boarders of language studies/linguistics, and a perspective built from dance and movement, offers the possibility for a new and deeper understanding of money.


I was marginally less flummoxed by the other sessions I attended across the two days but no less fascinated.

The one most directly related to Money Burning was William H Carter's presentation on Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent. A twenty minute cut of the most infamous scene is below. When interviewed Haneke claimed that he'd correctly predicted to the producer that audiences would be upset with that scene, and remarked that in today's society the idea of destroying money is more taboo than parents killing their child and themselves.

Flushing cash down the toilet draws on the (psychoanalytical) links between money and shit - Filthy Lucre - that Norman O Brown found so fascinating.

In a session on Art and Architecture Anne Murphy gave a paper 'Building Trust in the Financial Market' which looked at how finance is represented within the architecture of the Bank of England and other key institutions. She revealed a fact about the BoE's early construction certain to grab the attention of any decent hard-working money burner. In the C18th the BoE aggressively bought up properties surrounding its site in order to lessen its susceptibility to a great fire.

The BoE website describes it thus:
Over the next 100 years [from 1734], the Bank gradually acquired adjacent premises until the present three-acre island site was secured.

One of my ambitions is to do a burn in the Governor's garden in the central courtyard of the Bank of England. This adds even more symbolic weight to that action.

The Art and Architecture session also included a talk by Andrew Hurle on the Reader's Digest sweepstakes literature. I had forgotten all about this until I read Andrew's abstract. Then the memories flooded back. My Dad would regularly get enticing looking letters from Reader's Digest - they looked very official, like money itself. Have look here if you need reminding. I could never understand why my Dad didn't tear these letters open and jump about with excitement. It said in bold print 'YOU MAY HAVE ALREADY WON £25 000!'. He'd let me open them up and choose the interior of the car, or decide on the schedule of the holiday, or decide whether we'd take lump sum or lifetime payments..... and then bin them without me seeing.

Andrew looked at the ways in which Reader's Digest uses the language of finance in its sweepstakes literature. A short write-up of his project is available here.

Matthew Brannan gave a talk on his ethnography of telesales in finance. One of the general themes of my own work (work is not really what it is, but you get what I mean) is the idea that 'meaning comes from doing in mysterious ways'. I therefore wholeheartedly approve of academics getting out in the field and experiencing this sort of thing for themselves. As was clear from Matthew's presentation this methodology serves to ensure an empathy with the people who actually rip people off/do this sort of work. Maybe one day I'll write about my own experiences of being in business with a convicted fraudster. The reality of these sorts of worlds and experiences is - in someways - quite subtle and nuanced. It isn't as simple as saying that people just decide to act immorally or unethically through greed. In my experience there is always a moral framework (albeit perverted) and in some sense within the world of the fraudster/rip-off merchant it is more strictly enforced and adhered to than outside it.

Having said that off course NEVER BUY PPI OR INSURANCE AGAINST IDENTITY THEFT ETC ETC. When someone lends you money the risk of non-payment is theirs, not yours. Fuck the banks and their fear-mongering.

And while my justice ardor is raised. I must mention an idea that cut across two of the keynotes; Dick Bryan in 'Trading on the financial risk spreads of daily life: strategies for risking together' and Bob Meister in 'Justice as an option and the shorting of capitalism itself'.

So here my friends is the radical political bit. I know you're not used to such things from your friendly Money Burning Guy, but you know, only yesterday after I claimed that money burning etc is apolitical, a friend said to me that he failed to see how what I'm doing could be remotely apolitical. Another friend has always maintained that my actions are deeply political and that there is a direct connection between the sacred and the political.

Well, I'm still not sure about all that. But, for what its worth, THIS IS POLITICAL. And more to the point - if this plan of action possible (and that's a big IF) - IT WOULD WORK.

Some background: five years ago I did this post which offered a criticism of the Rolling Jubilee project. The idea was to buy up old debt at say 10c on the dollar and then forgive it. My argument is that this wouldn't work in the long term or as a wider solution because it would make old debt more expensive and therefore more worth its owners spending money trying to recover it. Eventually debtors would face more pressure from bailiffs etc etc. The project came to wider public attention when Jon Oliver bought up and forgave $15million of medical debt. But of course - other than the benefits to the folks lucky enough to have had their debt bought and forgiven - it doesn't seem to have had much effect on capitalism itself.

Dick and Bob's idea is a different beast. It plays on the sensitivity of derivative pricing (my piece on the Finance and Society conference actually delves into this quite deeply and includes pictures of Susie Dent, Carol Kirkwood and Rachel Riley). Here's the idea (as I understand it).

1. Pick a suitable derivative product (say a bundle of medical debt which attracts a regular flow of cash in repayments).
2. Pick a suitable bad-guy financial firm that owns such a derivative.
3. Find out the individual debts that make up the derivative.
4. Get those individuals to do a co-ordinated debt strike.
5. Negotiate the price of the interest/debt down with the bad guys.
6. Resume payment or not depending on negotiation.

There seem to me two (possibly insurmountable) practical problems with this; getting the information and coordinating the non-payment.

BUT and this is a massive BUT if you could solve the practical problems IT WOULD WORK. So its a very different idea to Rolling Jubilee because the success of that project would ensure its failure. With (let's call it) DERIVATIVE DEFAULT any success would be met (I expect) with a legal challenge and legislative response. But such a response would be confirmation that DERIVATIVE DEFAULT is dangerous and worrisome for financial systems. It could be a way of curbing the actions - and ensuring a more ethical basis - of the nastiest of the financial bad guys. Something that legislation itself fails to achieve. It would give unethical behavior a cost - it would be talking to finance in a language it understands.

Of course, if there were a million active money burners in the world all regularly performing sacred sacrificial ritual the second of the practical problems - the coordination of default - might be easier to achieve. Not that you should ever burn money to achieve a purpose, but just saying.


Anyway I must end this post by saying a huge Thank You to all involved for a wonderful couple of days - thank you for having such open arms to a non-academic money burning weirdo. And Thank You to John Hogan Morris especially, for encouraging me to come along in the first place.

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