Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy

Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy

by Melissa S. Fisher

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With the NASDAQ having lost 70 percent of its value, the giddy, optimistic belief in perpetual growth that accompanied the economic boom of the 1990s had fizzled by 2002. Yet the advances in information and communication technology, management and production techniques, and global integration that spurred the “New Economy” of the 1990s had triggered


With the NASDAQ having lost 70 percent of its value, the giddy, optimistic belief in perpetual growth that accompanied the economic boom of the 1990s had fizzled by 2002. Yet the advances in information and communication technology, management and production techniques, and global integration that spurred the “New Economy” of the 1990s had triggered profound and lasting changes. Frontiers of Capital brings together ethnographies exploring how cultural practices and social relations have been altered by the radical economic and technological innovations of the New Economy. The contributors, most of whom are anthropologists, investigate changes in the practices and interactions of futures traders, Chinese entrepreneurs, residents of French housing projects, women working on Wall Street, cable television programmers, and others.

Some contributors highlight how expedited flows of information allow business professionals to develop new knowledge practices. They analyze dynamics ranging from the decision-making processes of the Federal Reserve Board to the legal maneuvering necessary to buttress a nascent Japanese market in over-the-counter derivatives. Others focus on the social consequences of globalization and new modes of communication, evaluating the introduction of new information technologies into African communities and the collaborative practices of open-source computer programmers. Together the essays suggest that social relations, rather than becoming less relevant in the high-tech age, have become more important than ever. This finding dovetails with the thinking of many corporations, which increasingly employ anthropologists to study and explain the “local” cultural practices of their own workers and consumers. Frontiers of Capital signals the wide-ranging role of anthropology in explaining the social and cultural contours of the New Economy.

Contributors. Jean Comaroff, John L. Comaroff, Greg Downey, Melissa S. Fisher, Douglas R. Holmes, George E. Marcus, Siobhán O’Mahony, Aihwa Ong, Annelise Riles, Saskia Sassen, Paul A. Silverstein, AbdouMaliq Simone, Neil Smith, Caitlin Zaloom

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Frontiers of Capital is a synthetic state-of-the-art account of anthropology’s contribution to thinking about the current economic moment. The essays are—without exception—brilliant ethnographic excursions into the terrain of what the editors call the ‘New Economy.’ Together they enable an understanding of the post–Cold War, neoliberal, information-saturated, finance-capital-dominated world we inhabit.”—Charles Piot, author of Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa

“Capital will go anywhere if there is a profit to be turned or value to be found. That is its nature. This important collection provides a further chapter in this natural history, but one which has a much greater range, not least because it deploys a range of ethnographic techniques which allow it to cover the full spectrum of the ways and wheres in which the global economy works. An important and inspirational book which is willing to tread the delicate dividing line between within and without the system.”—Nigel Thrift, author of Knowing Capitalism

Jeffrey H. Cohen
“[A]n interesting and provocative set of chapters. . . . [T]he strength of the collection lies in the ways in which the authors weave clear ethnographic discussions with rich theoretical concerns. Combined ethnography and theory allow us to more clearly understand the give and take that exists between the creators and users of new technologies.”

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3727-0

Chapter One


The social theorist's oscillation between the market as the artifact of knowledge and as evidence of its limits finds powerful expression in the events now shaping the financial world. In the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis and the consciousness of so-called "systemic risk" amplified, the failure of the economic models that were the source of central bankers' expertise to offer useful predictions or fine-tuned policy solutions to recent market problems, and current efforts by global banks to do away with the regulation and management of the market by state actors altogether ... the central bankers at the Bank of Japan ... were both amazed at what they imagined as their own creation-a global market of seemingly infinite scale and complexity-and fearful of their own powerlessness vis-à-vis their creation. In particular, these central bankers' sense of powerlessness took the form of a heightened awareness of the contradictions in their role as creators and guardians of the global market. -Riles, "Real-Time: Governing the Market after the Failure of Knowledge"

Annelise Riles's acute insight locates anxieties infiltrating the work of centralbankers, but we believe these fears also imbue the outlook of actors across numerous domains of expertise. These figures share the apprehension that their distinctive analytical endeavors have been compromised, that in some deep way their knowledge is in doubt. As Riles notes, central bankers are in a particularly important position in this regard insofar as their anxiety, their sense of powerlessness, is the direct outcome of their own analytical enterprise: the institutional shaping and management of global financial markets. This predicament, faced paradigmatically by central bankers, is the starting point for what we have termed "para-ethnography," the intellectual response to a retreat of those forms of technical knowledge-whether in arts, science, business, finance, politics, government, or law-that have been underwritten and contextualized historically by the nation-state. In the shadow of this failure of technical knowledge is an alternative form of knowledge creation that has integrity in its own right, integrity with which anthropologists have a keen familiarity.

We begin with a discussion of a series of decisions made by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the key policymaking body of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, and how these decisions reveal distinctive intellectual practices that, we believe, have unusual methodological significance. We then turn to a historical account, informed by the work of David Westbrook, that describes the creation of a global polity-the "City of Gold," as he terms it-integrated constitutionally by supranational markets. In this brief assessment, we look at the historical circumstance that reciprocally gave birth to this global polity and brought to an end the era of the nation-state as the preeminent institutional context defining our lives together. We do this in terms of two key figures, John Maynard Keynes and Jean Monnet, who engineered this historical transformation through the Bretton Woods and European institutions, respectively, and whose analytical endeavors help us understand the role of technocratic knowledge in shaping a radical politics of our time: a politics that is not simply congruent with or reducible to the precepts of neoliberalism. This discussion also helps us assess the emergence of "symbolic analysts," a class of technocrats and political figures who, though appointed or elected in nation-states, designed supranational institutional realms in which they became key actors (Reich, 1992).

Fast capitalism thus designates the circumstances under which knowledge is created and effaced as the communicative space of the nation-state is eclipsed and our subjects and we, too, must think and act within a communicative space mediated increasingly by supranational markets. In the broadest terms, we are interested in what kind of intellectual practices are plausible, what kind of methodological innovations are necessary under the sway of contemporary political economy. For us, a reflexive ethnography is key for addressing these challenges and for investigating global assemblages constituting themselves in our midst (Agger, 1989; S. Collier and Ong, 2005; Holmes, 2000; Holmes and Marcus, 2005b; Maurer, 2005; Rabinow, 2003; Westbrook, 2003).


We recapitulate in this text our discussions in which we sought to work out for the first time our conceptualization of the para-ethnographic. This initial exercise has since become the basis of a far broader reappraisal of the character of anthropological ethnography in which we are currently engaged that encompasses what we have termed a "refunctioning" of ethnography (Holmes and Marcus, 2005a, 2005b). Our discussion turns on the postulation of the para-ethnographic as an orienting object of study and a key component in the construction of multisited research designs. Such a notion derives from the long-established anthropological interest in "the native point of view," with its representation being, in generic terms, the goal of ethnographic description. Of course, there have been many means and ways to this goal in the history of anthropology. In the framework of a specifically critical anthropology that is interested in the histories and processes by which distinct peoples and populations have contended with the encroachments of world historical systems, particularly Western ones, in the forms of colonialism, capitalism, and now globalization, this representation of native points of view has been as much about the resistance, accommodation, and resilience of such peoples in the face of these historic encroachments. This kind of study has developed recently along with the strong, critically reflexive examination by anthropologists of their own discipline. In this intersection is the conception that the traditional subjects of study have developed something like an ethnography of both their own predicaments and those who have encroached on them, and that their knowledge practices in this regard are in some sense parallel to the anthropologist's and deserving of more consideration than mere representation in the archive of the world's peoples that anthropologists have created. It is an idea that has been expressed from time to time but has not been fully examined, especially for its implications with regard to the forms, norms, and methods of ethnography (Marcus, 1995, 1998a, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2002a, 2002b).

As we have argued, our postulation of a para-ethnographic dimension to the worlds of meaning constructed by our subjects of study is perhaps a radical investment in this not yet fully examined idea that circulates currently in the production of ethnography. We do so, however, within a fully conceived ethnography of modernity where anthropologists have become accustomed to defining objects of study that are no longer on the border between the encroaching West and the transforming traditional, but are fully located within the shared, but differently situated and located, predicaments of contemporary life. In such a frame, the affinity between the effort to define the contemporary in composing ethnography and the same effort locatable in embedded discourses and practices among subjects is not at all a radical idea, but a necessary one (Boyer, 2003; Maurer, 2002a, 2002b; Miyazaki, 2003; Miyazaki and Riles, 2005; Riles, 2004b).

Thus, the illustrative account of decision making of the FOMC that follows provides the raw material, so to speak, out of which our conception of ethnography constitutes itself by demonstrating how embedded para-ethnographic practice is found in the scene of fieldwork, logically giving rise to the multisited terrain and problematic of contemporary fieldwork.

The impetus for the analysis that follows grew out of a rather focused discussion on the nature of ethnographic data, in particular, the role of "thin" data in shaping ethnographic analyses in what we term cultures of expertise, professional settings in which some form of research function is integral. We were preoccupied with how highly refined, technical documents -thin data-can serve as the material, so to speak, out of which we can create contexts and preconditions for "thick" description (Holmes and Marcus, 2005a; Marcus, 1999b). Coincidently, during this discussion, Holmes was involved in the preliminary research for his current project on central banking, which entailed reviewing enormous volumes of this kind of austere technocratic data, scrutinizing precisely those artifacts that Bruno Latour (1988, 54; quoted in Riles, forthcoming) describes as "the most despised of all ethnographic subjects." In the midst of this survey he encountered a dissonant term, literally a single word that altered our discussion fundamentally. This term was "anecdotal," as in a short, informal description or narrative account. This dissonant usage recurred in transcripts when senior officials of the U.S. Central Bank invoked the notion of "anecdotal data" during crucial deliberations that became the basis of a dramatic change in monetary policy. As we pursued the significance of this usage, we found that it not only provided a means to move between thick and thin description, but, more significant, it marked a breach in technocratic knowledge that opened the way for realigning the relationship between ethnography and political economy.


On January 3, 2001, the Federal Reserve Board instigated a surprise reduction in the discount rate of a full half percent (50 basis points, from 6.5 to 6 percent). The announcement came between the Federal Reserve Board's regular Open Market Committee meetings, when these decisions are normally taken, suggesting a marked anxiety about the state of the economy at the end of 2000. Subsequent data, as we now know, confirmed these apprehensions.

The FOMC meets formally eight times a year in Washington, D.C., with telephone consultations and other meetings when needed. The Committee is composed of seven members of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and five of the twelve presidents of the Federal Reserve district banks. The president of the New York Reserve Bank is a permanent member, and the other reserve bank presidents serve one-year terms on a rotating basis. All twelve presidents of the district banks participate in the FOMC discussions, but only the five presidents who are members of the Committee participate in policy decisions. The Committee is charged under law "to oversee open market operations, the principal tool of national monetary policy" (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1994, 12-13). This legal authority over the management of monetary policy, exercised primarily through the setting of interest rates, makes the Committee perhaps the most powerful institution governing the global economy (see Blinder, 1998, 2004; Meyer, 2004). Hence, the social behavior of its members is of unusual significance, and the events of 2000-2001 are particularly intriguing.

The year 2000 had opened strongly, but by late spring problems began to surface at the heart of the New Economy, the technology sector, along with broader problems gripping manufacturing in general. A savage, though widely predicted, correction in equity prices of Internet-related companies unfolded through midyear, and these problems leached into the pricing of chipmakers and related technology companies. The consensus opinion held by the governors and presidents of the district banks of the Federal Reserve during most of 2000 was that the economy was still strong; weakness in the technology sector, outside of Internet-based companies, was understood to involve a short-term inventory correction. By the last few days of the year, the perception had shifted markedly, suggesting that a far broader and more precipitous downturn was looming, with a growing risk of recession. This change in perception impelled the rate cut in early January 2001.

So something happened during the fifteen-day period from the December 19, 2000, regularly scheduled FOMC meeting to the unscheduled telephone conference meeting on January 3 that altered significantly the judgment of the members of the FOMC about the state of the U.S. economy (http://www jan3minutes). What transpired during this brief period intrigued us because it reveals decisively the operation of the para-ethnographic in a culture of expertise committed to a technocratic ethos predicated on the management of vast amounts of quantitative data. The imperative here for deploying the para-ethnographic is the acute need to interpret the "contemporary" in a meaningful fashion to inform decision making.

In the expert culture of the Federal Reserve System, the structure of the contemporary has a twofold manifestation that its members and staff must act within and on. On the one hand, it takes form as a skein of information-typically, highly refined quantitative data-that is constantly being generated and analyzed. On the other, it has a keen discursive character whereby information is endowed with social perspective and meaning. It is in this latter, rather oblique form of knowledge practice, typically glossed as anecdotal, that the para-ethnographic takes form, and it is under these conditions that key cultural practices of expert subjects converge with our own analytical endeavors as ethnographers. In other words, our subjects are doing something that approximates ethnographic labor to represent the social nature of the contemporary, within which they and we pursue our expert practices. The figures we have been looking at summon these narratives to conceptualize the contemporary financial world for a particular purpose: to anticipate the future, to capture shifting configurations of expectations and sentiment. As Westbrook (2003, 145) eloquently puts it, making "the future a task that must be confronted now, and on the terms determined by capital," has a deeply unsettling effect.

In helping us to secure ourselves from, or at least ameliorate, the dangers that lurk in the middle distance, finance robs us of the ability to enjoy the present. The expectation of the near future, the time of finance, is built up and yet obscures the reality of the present. As a result, we experience the present as quite literally surreal, as something somehow built on top of reality.... Surrealism portrays us situated among conventions that we understand to have no foundations, to be arbitrary and quite possibly impossible, and that yet stand because no other basis for tomorrow is historically or otherwise imaginable.

Thus, we have argued that the para-ethnographic is not merely an aspect of expert practice, but is inlaid in the architecture of a future-oriented contemporary; it is the means by which the contemporary is reproduced socially (Holmes and Marcus, 2005b).


The Fed is disarmingly frank to the point of deadpan about the imperfection of its own knowledge and its power to manage the economy:

In practice, monetary policymakers do not have up-to-the-minute, reliable information about the state of the economy and prices. Information is limited because of lags in the publication of data and because of later revisions in data. Also, policymakers have a less-than-perfect understanding of how the economy works, including knowledge of when and to what extent policy actions will affect aggregate demand. (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 1994, 24)

The irony of this declaration is that the Fed's own technocratic agenda has served to accelerate the pacing of what we are calling here fast capitalism, rendering analysis of economic performance increasingly refractory. Indeed, it is precisely this conundrum that makes the U.S. Central Bank such an intriguing object of study (Miyazaki and Riles, 2005).


Excerpted from FRONTIERS OF CAPITAL Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Melissa S. Fisher is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Georgetown University. Greg Downey is Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University.

Greg Downey is Lecturer in Anthropology at Macquarie University.

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