Liquidated. An Ethnography of Wall Street by Karen Ho

This groundbreaking ethnography of Wall Street was inspired by a paradox: the profound disjuncture between the interests of American corporations and those of their employees. She queried therefore the rationale behind the downsizings imposed by Wall Street and supported by the instrumental ideology of shareholder value. Further she explores the relationships between layoffs, corporate profits and stock prices. She discovered that the rationalisation of overgrown and inefficient corporations did not positively correlate to a long term increase in shareholder value and would not generate the expected growth of the labour market which would follow the brief (but painful) shock therapy. Such initial recognition of the paradoxical mismatch between stated claims and actual results by Wall Street bankers led her to investigate the broader mechanisms through which Wall Street makes markets in the face of recurrent failures in achieving its stated goals.

Markets laws are used to justify downsizing and rationalizations and, paradoxically, their unpredictability are referred to when explaining the crises generated by failing corporate policies elicited by ideological financial practices. The observation of these multiple apparent paradoxes led Ho to ask “how have the severe social dislocations social scientists have usually attributed to global capitalism at large – the dismantling of corporate and governmental safety net, the wave of corporate downsizing, mergers and restructurings; the changing nature of what it means to be a successful worker; the growing concentration of wealth at the top; the social violence of financial booms and busts – been actualized?” (4)

To develop her argument she counters abstract approaches to markets by studying the contextual embodiments of global capitalism in particular sets of practices and ethos by actor-networks (from investment banks to pension funds, private equity firms and mathematical models to compute value and risk). She ethnographically interrogates these actor-networks showing how a context based, in-depth and practice-based methodology can best explain the social dynamics often referred to in abstract and naturalised manners, as in the forces of the market. The reference to forces is not casual as theoretically Ho supports her work not only through Latour’s actor-network theory but by investigating markets as “fields” of social relations à la Bourdieu.

The fieldwork was conducted between 1996 and 1999. Ho worked for the Bankers Trust and after being downsized she continued attending formal and informal events through which the social existence of Wall Street unfolds. She interviewed dozens of co-workers and contacts in key Wall Street institutions enquiring on the mentality and culture that underpin one of the most powerful social groupings on the planet. However, the book is fully updated and relevant in the wake of the latest financial crisis. Indeed it answers recurrent questions such as how could it happen? Who was responsible? How were the hints so blatantly missed? Her blunt, convincing and detailed answer is that such a crisis was “fairly predictable”. From the standpoint of the evidences she collected, bankers’ ideologies and practices do set Wall Street for recurring cycles of liquidation and reconstitutions. The latest financial crisis was a most dramatic case of the former dynamic (liquidation) following the irrational euphoria of reconstitution after the previous bust of the so-called DotCom bubble.

The argument is masterly articulated. Ho challenges the foundations of the generalised belief that such an event could be foreseen let alone prevented. While disproving this self-serving argument, Ho shows how the daily social relations in Wall Street are built on a culture of domination defined by racism, sexism and homophobia and built on disloyalty, irresponsibility, impatience, constant change, and immediacy. This book is about Wall Street, certainly, but it is also about the wider system, American and global, that has embodied whiteness, maleness and heteronormativity and made of them the moral and practical conditions for domination (and potential destruction) of the planet.

Ho develops her findings in three steps themselves articulated in trinomials. The first refers to the foundations of Wall Street’s culture: they are racism, sexism and homophobia; the second imposes its global domination: shareholder value, globalisation and free market; the third ensures its social reproduction: smartness, hard work and flexibility. Through this analytical framework Ho vividly shows the constitutive reiterations between neoclassical ideology, market values, Wall Street’s culture, personal traits and interpersonal relations in the workplace.

Trinomials are used throughout her book to counter her discomfort with radical binaries. This methodological attitude is illustration of Ho’s sensibility for critical methodologies and theoretical attitudes aimed at challenging entrenched binomial approaches to knowledge grounded on moral binaries of good and evil. She uses several of them, here are some: downsizing, corporate profits, stockholder value; workplace models, corporate culture, and individual life-experience. Market ideology is expressed in terms of individualism, private property and neoclassical economics and, to conclude this brief inventory, access, initiation and method define the socialization of bankers but also researchers of Wall Street.

This last point raises urgent questions from within the analytical framework presented in the book. To what extent Ho’s access, initiation and method framed her research? In Ho’s case, access was ensured by her belonging to one of the few institutions appreciated by Wall Streeters for educating smart enough students; her initiation was being downsized; and her method consisted of her idiosyncratic ethnography mostly based on interviews. Each of these aspects is engaged and problematized adding a further layer of sophistication to Ho’s work. It would have been inspiring to read further on these crucial topics were Ho not constrained by space limitations and by a strict issues prioritization.

Ho’s groundbreaking work succeeds in providing the reader with a convincing argument that the anthropology of capitalism is not impervious to small scale ethnography which instead gives abstract capitalism a grounded dimension, showing its instantiation in daily practices, ideologies and institutions. By doing so she eliminates the halo of necessity that characterises the outcome of specific ideological practices of naturalization. This book is a milestone of an increasingly sophisticated and relevant anthropology of markets and it constitutes crucial reading for both undergraduate and post-graduate students. Further, it is useful and engaging reading for transnational activists challenging the domination of the world and the colonization of lifeworlds by capitalist institutions.

Ho, Karen 2009. Liquidated. An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham and London, Duke University Press.

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