October 28, 2011
by Annelise Riles
1 Comment

Rethinking “Too Big To Fail”

Last month I published a paper rethinking the Too Big To Fail question from the point of view of anthropological theories of debt.  You might say that while modern financial economics focuses on credit, modern anthropology of exchange focuses on debt. The latter has developed very sophisticated theoretical and empirical insights about the politics and social practice of debts and indebtedness. As I argue in the chapter, unlike economists who regard “Too Big to Fail” scenarios as the exception to proper market relations, anthropologists’ empirical research shows that these are actually the norm. And not only are they the norm, but in fact social actors seek to become “Too Big to Fail.”  If you are so indebted to so many parties that you cannot be allowed to fail, anthropology tells us, you are actually the most powerful person around.  This view of the world probably better characterizes the realities of current finance, in which banks, like exchange actors anthropologists study, see becoming Too Big to Fail as something to be achieved, and in which the presence of such actors is also the norm, not the exception.
In the paper, I also show how anthropological theories of relational personhood and exchange relationships actually illuminate a number of aspects of the legal nature of corporate personhood and help us gain some critical perspective on the relationship between corporations and nation-states.
It is a new set of ideas for me and so I would really welcome feedback!

October 27, 2011
by Annelise Riles

How Should Wall Street Respond to the Protests?

Here is a question that intrigues me about the current protests: How can, and should the targets of these protests (investment bankers, lawyers, regulators, journalists, politicians, etc.) respond?

Among the many legends surrounding Dean Guido Calabresi of the Yale Law School is the following story, which I am sure is only partially true: One day, law students organized a protest against the dean–what the reason for the protest was is long forgotten, but they chanted and held signs that read “Down with Dean Guido!”  Guido, hearing this protest, raced down from his office, smiling, with open arms, and grabbed one of the signs in one hand, while throwing himself at the most angry protester in a giant hug.  Soon they were all chanting and smiling together–Down with Dean Guido!–while hugging and laughing at the absurdity of it all.  The protest ended as a love-fest.

Now we could read Dean Guido’s actions as cynical or we could read them as signs of the immaturity of the students and their lack of clarity about what their protest was about in the first place. And there are certainly differences between whatever causes may have motivated the Yale Law students on that day and the very serious issues at stake in debates about the regulation of global markets.  But I would rather read Dean Guido’s actions as the political version of the old martial arts move of absorbing and deflecting your opponent’s power not simply as a means of defeating him but an instantiation of your commonality with him.  From this point of view, this incident offers a more complicated insight about the nature of protest, as political ritual which, like all ritual, is about many things at the same time and not simply about “demands,” which can turn in unexpected directions and offer opportunities for unexpected political outcomes if the parties can see beyond their own positions long enough to imagine unexpected ways of intervening, and which, above all, requires a response.

So how will “Wall Street” broadly conceived, respond? Are there opportunities for doing like Dean Guido, and embracing the protesters and the protests, thereby transforming this political moment?

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