DECEMBER 9, 2020
BY NOW, it is commonly understood that finance plays an outsize role in the economy. Following a convergence of crises (oil, fiscal, debt, and stagflation) in the early 1970s, a series of policy decisions enabled the financial industry to emerge with increased control over all aspects of the economy. The term financialization describes this tendency.  Though it lacks the temporal markers of late capitalism or neoliberalism, financialization also acts as something of a periodizing claim: an era of capitalism distinctly shaped (or dominated) by finance. If we grant that financial logics characterize our era, if we live as subjects in financial times, then those logics imagine us as rational actors in markets inhabiting a perpetual present and oriented toward the maximization (or extraction) of future value. The past is past, stretched out quietly behind us, dormant and out of view. Yet when crisis strikes — and the history of capitalism indicates that crisis is never far away — the past comes hurtling headlong into the present. Financial journalists, academic economists, and leaders of private and public financial institutions scramble to explain what is at once economically unexpected and historically inevitable. So, what then? Better yet: Which then tells us what now?
Take the global credit crisis of 2007 and 2008, which wiped out tens of trillions of dollars of fictitious capital, dispossessed millions of people of their jobs and homes, and resulted in the most catastrophic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s — at least until the current crisis, whose devastation is still unfolding. Putting to rest self-congratulatory claims of a “Great Moderation,” a period beginning in the mid 1980s in which economic volatility was said to have been resolved, the onset of the credit crisis led regulators reluctantly to “a series of searching questions about the evolution of financial markets, their recurring bouts of instability, and the challenges these pose to existing modes of financial governance.” While important in their own right, these questions “also revealed a new and radical uncertainty about the logics of economic and political change, about the kind of present these had produced, and about the possible futures that might be forged through such a moment.” In other words, the questions posed by chastened regulators provoked political and historical questions that move us beyond a strictly economic imagination: Which histories bear on the present and why? What now is produced through crisis? What futures can be imagined and forged in its wake? Amin Samman’s History in Financial Times takes as its task “to elaborate and enact a philosophy of history fit for the world of contemporary global finance.” In doing so, it questions two mainstream economic assumptions.
Readers will likely be familiar with homo economicus, that self-interested, rational economic actor of ECON 101 textbooks. Simplifying Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, late 19th-century marginalists argued economic man sought solely to maximize utility (the satisfaction derived from fulfilling an economic want or need). Examining then-nascent strands of neoliberalism in the late 1970s, Michel Foucault tracked a shift from utility to the maximization of productivity: homo economicus as entrepreneur of the self. Updating Foucault’s account, Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos (2015) posited a subsequent shift to the investment in human capital in not just economic matters, but all decision-making, lamenting how market rationality crowds out homo politicus, and, thus poses a threat to democracy itself.
Yet history persists. If knowledge practices shape economic subjectivity in Foucault’s and Brown’s accounts, so too does the production of historical knowledge. Samman argues that these accounts of economic subjecthood are haunted by homo historia, “a form of subjectivity associated with the operation of historical discourse.” Expanding on a concept from Deleuze and Guattari, homo historia inhabits a double bind as a “subject that seeks solace in historical discourse yet cannot help but do so by disobeying its rules.” Samman introduces this figure to provide “a sense of antecedent, trajectory, and possibility that would otherwise be missing from a purely economic or financial perspective.” If for Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson history is what hurts, homo historia cannot help but return to history with the desire that it might yet also heal.
Now equipped with a subject who imagines history, we must also develop a properly historical understanding of economic time. Orthodox economists rely on “a set of models in which time figures as a mere medium for processes of market adjustment.” As a result of relying on models predicated on equilibrium rather than change, their understanding of markets tends to be mechanical rather than temporal. This conception of time tends to be too logical, too abstract, to account for history. Of course, this ahistorical account of economics has a long history of criticism. Thinkers as varied as Marx, Veblen, Keynes, and Polanyi “all worked with a broadly modern, scientific image of time premised on the worldview of the clock, leading them to theorize not only markets in general but also the way specific market economies evolved over decades and centuries.” Samman emphasizes in particular the British post-Keynesian economist Joan Robinson, who suggested “that orthodox economists had no conception whatsoever of structural change.” Positing instead that “history flies forward on the back of time’s arrow,” Robinson argued that economics is historical, economic history has a certain temporality, and this temporality is irreversible, marching ever forward.
Samman affirms Robinson’s first claim but sets out to trouble the latter two. Economic sociologists have already demonstrated that “[t]he future can act on the present […] through different modes of anticipation.” The gambit of Samman’s book cuts the other way, arguing that “the recursive action of the past on the present” obtains, too. To work this out, Samman turns to debates in historiography. History, in his account, “is a nonlinear and reflexive process, in which the presence of the past performs an extraordinarily productive role.” He argues:
Time may seem to flow in one direction (when we follow the movements of the stock markets, for example), but often the sequence is scrambled. Sometimes time folds back on itself, such that the present takes shape through a vista of imagined pasts and projected futures (we remember the Great Depression, or we spy another on the horizon). This is the reflexive, nonlinear aspect of temporal experience, and its central to the character of historical time. Historical time emerges through the historical imagination. That is what makes it historical.
Following Hayden White and Michel de Certeau, Samman argues that history does not refer to something real and given, but rather “something that must be imagined and produced.” What we think of as history comes about not only through the “narrative operations of historical writing,” the formal historical discourse produced by historians, but also “through a variety of everyday operations undertaken by homo historia.” The latter operations “form a pool of abstract, imagined patterns that can reappear in any number of later presents.” Relying on these familiar patterns — think, for example the crisis or the cycle — homo historia “imagines and produces something called ‘history’ precisely through a mixing up of past, present, and future.” Historical discourse shapes the historical imagination, and, in turn, the historical imagination doubles back and shapes historical discourse. This is where things get, Samman admits, a little weird.
Rather than being fixed, dormant, or out of view, the past circulates in the imagination of homo historia. For Samman, signal events and abstract patterns act as
vectors of the historical imagination — specifically modern modes of organizing temporal experience that derive their power from the discourse of history and our familiarity with it. The result is a quasi-historical process — a strange history — in which the recollected past shapes the way we apprehend and negotiate the present.
When homo historia turns to history to understand the present, he does not turn to history itself, but to his imagination of it, and in the process of doing so, contributes to the production of history. To describe this quasi-historical process, Samman adapts cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s conception of the strange loop. If a loop is “a form of feedback in which the outputs of a process are available as inputs back into it,” then “a strange loop is one that crosses boundaries between the imaginary and the real.” By adapting this real-imaginary boundary-crossing concept from consciousness to history, we see how “the various components of historical discourse serve as so many inputs into the production of what we usually think of as history’s process.” The power of narrative shifts “from the domain of cognition into that of mediation,” as narrative begins to act on history itself. Temporality becomes recursive. Historical outputs become inputs back into history. Homo historia’s imagination of history crosses over into — and actively shapes — the historical record.
History in Financial Times is divided into three sections. The first pair of chapters conceptualize the relationship between crisis and history. Chapter one “develops a metahistory of the crisis concept.” Examining Marxist and liberal thinkers alike, Samman suggests that over time, the relation of crisis to history shifts, such that the concept of crisis itself becomes “a means of imagining and producing history.” Tracking the use of the crisis concept by political economists, Samman argues “that the history of crisis thinking provides a repertoire of imagined patterns and signal events that feed back into the constitution of the present as a moment of crisis.” Chapter two turns to historiography and “analyz[es] a string of controversies regarding the status of writing, fiction, narrative, and the category of the event.” Samman points to the foundational ambiguity of history, namely whether it is “a retelling or the thing itself.” Drawing on de Certeau, White, and Paul Ricoeur, Samman argues for the centrality of narrative to history and how historical episodes accumulate meaning as they are aligned and realigned, ultimately breaking from the confines of history books and into the practical past. Through strange loops, the imagination and narration of history feed into history itself.
Having mapped crisis and historiography conceptually, the second section examines how these concepts are deployed in “the public narration of financial history.” Chapter three offers a close analysis of how four mainstream economic periodicals repeatedly reanimated the Great Depression from the early rumblings of the financial crisis in mid-2007 through its aftermath. Here, Samman argues that the crisis of the 1930s “served as a vector for the production of competing crisis histories, transmitting the figure of historical recurrence through time but doing so in diverse ways.” In other words, in an attempt to explain the crisis as it unfolded, financial journalists invoked this past crisis to varied and contradictory ends. Thus, for Samman, the idea of the Great Depression “actually mediate[s] between appearance and essence in financial history, revealing a quasi-historical process that neither category is able to fully grasp.” Chapter four turns to “the discursive work of a global cadre of crisis managers in central banks, treasury departments, and international financial organizations” in order to demonstrate how the recurrence of crisis in this milieu is often styled as a form of revelation. Rather than the mere repetition of history from which lessons might be drawn, crisis managers sought to conjure “even the most unforeseen of occurrences into a filling out of some long-latent destiny.” Indeed, “[w]ith the repetition of traumatic episodes in the historical record, an archetype of revelation is mobilized in such a way that contemporary efforts at crisis management appear as the filling out or fulfillment of an earlier, originary crisis of global finance.” For the crisis manager, crisis never goes to waste if it can be retrofitted into a newly inevitable economic common sense.
The book’s final chapter takes these themes into the realm of popular culture and examines three financial films. Specifically, Samman is interested in the ways that proper names in fictional representations of finance cross over into historical narration. Take, for example, Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987), whose fictional name is taken up by actual traders, convinced of his Randian goodness, and circulated as a part of the historical-economic imagination. In the form of a strange loop, cultural representation becomes an input into historical production; the fictional character feeds into financial history itself. In the afterword, Samman argues
the age of financial capitalism is less unique than commonly thought. Despite various transformations in the money form and the myriad instruments now traded on financial markets, historical change is still imagined and produced through narratives of crisis and the futures onto which these open out.
Samman thus turns briefly to “a new series of loops at work in the contemporary, postcrisis moment [and] to a related question of futurity,” the latter to be returned to in my own conclusion.
As is characteristic of the interdisciplinary field known as “critical finance studies,” History in Financial Times draws on and synthesizes an impressive array of concepts, theories, and disciplines only gestured at here. The book shows a great deal of range in its method, including conceptual and methodological histories, discourse analysis, and cultural criticism. Some of these discussions might seem familiar depending on one’s disciplinary home, however, it is rare to see them threaded together so compellingly. The final chapter’s focus is especially welcome as it remains relatively uncommon to see those outside the arts and humanities taking the effects of cultural representation seriously. This attention to cultural production follows naturally from the study’s emphasis on narrative and its deployment of the strange loop, which cuts across real and imagined terrain.
On these last points, a pair of provocations. First, for a study emphasizing the power of narrative, and so concerned with how history is imagined, produced, and mobilized in a crisis, one wonders about how the historical imagination relates ideology, a term which does not figure in the argument. I’m thinking especially of Louis Althusser’s provocative claim that “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The book’s largely poststructuralist account raises important and necessary questions about historiography in financial times, but has less to say about real conditions to which they refer. If crises of the past are dusted off by financial journalists, bankers, and regulators, and put to particular narrative purpose in the present, then it would seem important to underscore what these purposes are, whom they benefit, and how they are made into common sense.
This leads to a second, related point. I am at times skeptical of the power narrative garners in this account, which may be surprising from a reader trained in literary and cultural studies. For example, in the chapter on the crisis concept, Samman refers to the “crisis of Keynesianism” in the 1970s as “an imagined crisis to begin with, emerging through a bitterly fought struggle over who and what was to blame for the breakdown of postwar growth and stability.” While the Keynesian account was certainly under concerted ideological attack by neoliberals of various stripes, to my mind this doesn’t explain the economic conditions that precipitated that attack and conditioned its victory. Put differently, if the crisis in Keynesianism was a failure of narrative, the underlying (and ongoing) crisis of capital was not. Moreover, workers who have lost their jobs, health insurance, and homes — not to mention those shut out from the circuits of capital who never had these things to lose — do not need imagination to understand crisis. If it is perhaps unfair to ask a book focused solely on finance to account for other aspects of the economy, or to also view crisis from below, such an account is no less urgent.
These provocations aside, the insistence on history in financial times serves as a necessary corrective to narrow-minded theories of economic or financial subjectivity and the self-serving significations of economic elites. What Samman’s study does so well is to demonstrate how rather than being hopelessly ensnared in market rationality, or stuck in an eternal present with eyes only toward realizing future value, or subject to inexplicable, exogeneous crises rather than utterly predictable and endogenous ones, we remain historical animals: “We go on thinking and acting historically, no matter how inhuman and anhistorical the world becomes.” If Samman’s quasi-history of strange loops is correct, the past is never dead, it’s not even past.
What then, finally, of the future? Although emboldened by Jameson’s injunction to “[break] out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time,” Samman asks, “[W]hat if there is no real history to break back into”? He elaborates:
[T]here is no authentic or primordial plane of historical time to which we can return, only rabbit hole after rabbit hole of a history produced through strange loops. History, for want for a better word, escapes our imagination not simply because it exceeds our image of it, but because it feeds on that image, over and again, confronting us with an ever-evolving set of fantasies about our power to master and remake the systems in which we find ourselves enmeshed.
The challenge of the future
is to somehow cultivate a distance from these fantasies, to engage the historical imagination without taking it at face value, to put its repertoire of forms to work without mistaking the maps for the territory — in other words, to develop a posthistorical imagination better fit for contemporary times.
Coming at it from a different angle and method, I have suggested something similar here: there is a need to understand and explain and contest financial (and economic) history without being wholly beholden to it. Navigating political terrain in the present requires “our ability to think beyond the historical.” From the perspective of now, the future seems foreclosed. History hurts and heals, constrains and exceeds. The task of the present is a struggle and not just one over competing narratives. It is a struggle that is not solely imaginative, but political, material, and collective. It is a struggle to “blast open the continuum of history,” as Walter Benjamin once wrote, or to wrench from history futures that have not yet been imagined.
 Financialization means that profit is sought “increasingly through financial channels rather than through productive activities” (Krippner). To give a sense of scale, by 2007 “the total value of financial assets” was 10 times US GDP as a result of “deregulation, financial disintermediation, and securitization” (Brine and Poovey).