CRESC, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, is a well-known institution for many working on finance in sociology and political science, as well as researchers in cultural and media politics. By uniquely bringing together researchers from these fields, its annual conference in Manchester is an inspirational forum for unorthodox interdisciplinary exchange, without the numbing genericity of academic mega-conferences.
The theme chosen for this year’s conference (5-7 September) proved an excellent basis for taking stock of economies and societies in crisis: “Promises“. One striking feature of this conference was the presence of journalists, NGO representatives, and professionals like asset managers (as spectators and presenters) alongside academics, which added diverse perspectives and precluded overly technical/theoretical debates. (Other conferences may follow this good example.) Being spoiled for choice among the many panels, I mostly attended the ones on finance, missing the more culture-heavy sessions. Therefore, the three observations which impressed themselves upon me relate to the more political-economic questions in coming to grips with the present state of capitalism. Three insights from Manchester:
1. Financialisation is so pervasive and wide, many facets are only now being explored. I say this not only because I presented microfinance as a little-recognised dimension of financialisation which extends it into the slums and villages of the Global South. Many papers underscored the breadth of the research challenge in financialisation. One innovatively-structured session on the uncertainties in consumer finance markets (headed by L. McFall) illustrated how finance reaches ever-deeper into everyday lives, but often produces, rather than reduces, uncertainty. The transformations of financialisation operate at the macro and micro levels, and in their interaction, as a session on the “absent promise of the Euro” excellently showed by linking the peculiarities of the Greek case (D. Papadimitriou) with the underlying transnational banking crisis (I. Erturk) and the historically-grounded cultural practices of money and finance in the Aegean (S. Green). A number of papers studied the imagination, dreams and promises which financial markets and financialised politics appeal to, for instance L. Moor on personal finance advertising, A. Davis on “speculative value”, and A. Salento on the post-Fordist promise in Italy. C. Roberts‘ paper on education traced the always-important but under-studied connection between financialisation and privatisation. In sum, financialisation researchers have their work cut out for them.
2. Highly specialised technical discourses are where present-day politics take place. Yes, this isn’t such a novel insight, as anyone following Sigrid Quack’s work on how accounting standards shape the mechanics of finance and the economy would rightly point out (see her recent post). But the CRESC Conference really drove this point home with force: most meaningful political struggles today aren’t being fought over grand ideas, but technocratically over highly-complex issues by specialists taking weighty decisions which affect many people without them even realising. (This conveniently links to insight 3). M. Eagleton-Pierce typologised the different classes of experts with different levels of access to discourses shaping world trade, which connected with questions over the accountability of financial regulators (N. Dorn) and the overall constraints on democratic governance in times of financial crisis (M. Marangodakis/M. Xenitidou). A paper by multiple CRESC faculty aptly focused on the staffing of Central Banks by “politically unaccountable technocrats who are cognitively suspect in their economic thinking”. As a result of such technicalisation of the political-economic realm, even social movement organisations like Attac must adopt expertise-based strategies in their campaigning, but face severe challenges (S. Ötsch). The question arises: are we giving up democracy for a (false) reduction in uncertainty?
3. There is bafflement at the failure of academics, politicians, journalists, etc., to “think outside the box”, find real answers to crisis, and replace discredited “experts”. It’s good to see others grappling with this issue; but the overall sensation of sclerosis is disheartening. Tangible at the conference was bewilderment at old truths and institutions still standing despite their obvious failures (from Mervyn King leading the Bank of England, to austerity remaining the gospel refrain to the crisis tune), while real alternatives stay in the loony bin and pathetic piecemeal reform is the only game. Yet it isn’t that ideas are lacking. Aditya Chakrabortty, the Guardian columnist, drove this point home in his plenary, where he renewed his visceral critique of social and political scientists inability to provide coherent alternatives after economics’ failure in the crisis (earlier this year). His point that many scientists appear all too comfortable in the ivory tower is well-taken. But I must underscore Karel Williams‘ challenge to also reflect upon the media’s role in sustaining the status quo rather than driving change. After all, they determine which voices may be heard, and which ones are ignored.
Chakrabortty succinctly asked in the plenary,”What’s the point of thinking about the workable when it isn’t working?”. Indeed. At CRESC it was good to see and meet many people thinking more radically about ways out of the rut.