October 2, 2012
by Annelise Riles
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Market Totalitarianism

AIG Tower, Seoul

One of the big financial news stories of the week was that the US government will get its money back on the sale of AIG stocks. There is actually a debate about whether this is an accurate description of the state of affairs. But what interests me most is the fact–apparently agreed upon by both the champions and the critics of the TARP program–that the government’s return on its investment is the arbiter of the success or failure of the TARP policy. The state is now an investor, and its success or failure is evaluated according to the terms we apply to any other investor. What model of the state is this?
What fascinates me about this is that the state is a player in the market, to be evaluated on pretty much the same terms as we would evaluate any other market participant. This is a new kind of politics, not just a new kind of regulatory economics.
So what? I think this is actually a very big deal–something that should get political theorists going, and should engage us all in debates about the nature of democracy, or perhaps post-democracy, in an era in which states have imploded into markets and vice versa. I have a new paper coming out next spring on this subject in American Anthropologist and the title gives away my own views on this emerging politics: Market Totalitarianism.
I presented this paper last week as a keynote lecture at a conference at McGill Law Faculty entitled “Law Beyond the State.” A smattering of responses I got:

“You’re crazy.”
“You’re wild.”
“I wouldn’t be so radical.”
“People love what you do but they wouldn’t follow you there themselves.”
‘Your paper did not leave anyone indifferent…These slightly surreal moments are one of the great blessings of life.”
And weirdest of all, “Listening to you is an aesthetic experience.”

But that isn’t the worst: One of my own colleagues at an internal faculty workshop told me I should “just go hang out in the Hamptons with Romney and the other crazies.”
It is a sad commentary on how truly boring the legal academy has become when I count as outrageous. What seems to bother people are two things:

1. I am suggesting that there might actually be unintended consequences to centrist lefties’ eternal defense of the state (nothing new I thought here–see Todorov, Lefort, and any of the leftists with experiences of totalitarian states under their belts) and

2. I am suggesting that the techniques of private law, which we have devoted generations to showing up as endlessly malleable, and worse, politically suspect, might offer an ironic space for creative response to the current condition. Here is a very thoughtful version of the latter point:

“I found your diagnosis of the market and debt most compelling and was drawn to your use of Mauss and Davy. What I found surprising — and I suppose that is the Davy direction rather than the Mauss direction of your analysis — is that you ended up hitching your flag to the mast of the reciprocity of the contractual form (sounding remarkably like Ernie Weinrib in the end) rather than revisiting more insistently the gift relationship. In other words, I was expecting you to tell us that, in effect, capitalism had collapsed upon itself through the involution of debt that you described …and that the sphere of gift, relegated to the margins by market exchange, would have to be reinvested.”

That is indeed what one would expect of an anthropologist! Arguing for gifts instead of law.  What I find challenging about Georges Davy is that he refuses the distinction between the two.

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